How Lenny's Trigger Stacking is like... CAKE!

by Kerry Ryan, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Family Dog Mediator

In the summer of 2023, I hosted a young dog named Lenny for a five week Board & Learn while his family traveled to Australia to visit family. Lenny was highly reactive to common urban visual and aural stimuli, going over threshold with loud and explosive barking episodes for things as minor as the sound of a car door slamming. 

After a very strict management plan was put in place to dampen many of Lenny's triggers and a several day period of decompression was instituted, I finally started to see progress. Below is Lenny's report from our first truly successful day together after his decompression process, in which I was able to turn the situation into an analogy for cake. As "more cake" is one of my main goals in life, I thought I'd share  his daily report with the cake-loving masses. Enjoy.

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Thursday, July 20, 2023

Big, big gains! Today was the first day that I felt Lenny was completely in his brain and his body. It’s really easy for Lenny to fall victim to trigger stacking, so I’ve been doing my absolute best to limit all of his triggers entirely, unless I am very actively doing systematic desensitization and classical counterconditioning around them specifically and individually. 

We have been staying exclusively in my house and backyard. Because I live in an unpredictable urban environment and cannot control all variables 100%, Lenny did have a couple of big barks today, but he’s been able to bounce back from them significantly faster than when he first arrived. There are far fewer stress hormones flooding his system right now, and it’s making a noticeable difference. 

When we tried an edge-of-the-park visit when Lenny first arrived, he was frenetically happy, causing his body to flood with eustress hormones. Then, thanks to trigger stacking, Lenny went over threshold by a couple of barely distressing triggers: a dog barking in the distance and a person walking with a cane on the other side of the park. This rendered him incapable of processing any stress, “good” or “bad.”

Think of Lenny’s experience as… cake. 

(Stay with me here.)

In this analogy, for this particular dog, the cake base is eustress (good stress!) and the frosting is distress (bad stress!).

You might be thinking, “But frosting is delicious! I love frosting! Who doesn’t love frosting?” And the answer is: Lenny. He loves a good pound cake, or maybe an upside-down cake or tres leches. He’ll sometimes be able to tolerate a single layer of frosting, if need be, but really only as a way to get cake.

When Lenny has a simple cake-with-no-frosting, he’s stoked. And can get by with a little bit of ganache or buttercream, if need be. 

But… a layer cake? NO. FULL STOP. NO.

Lenny CANNOT STAND layer cakes. There is WAY TOO MUCH FROSTING in layer cakes. Sure, there’s more of the good stuff, but it’s sandwiched between all of this FROSTING, and Lenny thinks it is just terrible. Too much frosting, way, way, way too much frosting to eat in order to have cake.

Still with me? Lenny enjoys having lots of fun (cake). He can even have fun with a little bit of frosting (one or two minor triggers). But when there are too many triggers, minor though they may be, he just can’t deal. Even while there is a lot of fun to be had, the experience becomes unpleasant for Lenny.

This might feel like a buzzkill, as your family may very well love layer cakes, and you may want to share them with Lenny. But it's all good: you can totally have your devil’s food cake or your German chocolate cake or your Boston cream pie. It’s just that... Lenny doesn’t want any. You might think that he is “missing out,” but that’s just because you enjoy layer cakes. For Lenny, though, getting abundant love and attention, playing with the neighbor's dog, and running around the house and backyard are enough. Lenny doesn’t actually want to be on the sidelines of a soccer game, or at a family picnic in the park, or sharing sidewalk space with other leashed dogs, at least not now at this point in his development. Sure, there are some parts of those experiences that would be very fun for him, but there are just too many combined distressing elements for him to handle.

Does this mean that Lenny will never like layer cakes? No, absolutely not! Tastes can absolutely change. In fact, because I’d like to enjoy a layer cake with Lenny someday, I am actively giving him little tastes of frosting here and there to find out what he likes and to maybe, slowly, bring him around to certain kinds of things that I like, too.

In other words, I am giving Lenny lots fun and gentle physical exercise, mental enrichment, and social experiences, all the while introducing low levels of Lenny’s triggers and pairing them with rewards to change his feelings over time.

Today was therefore a pretty “simple” day. There was chase in the backyard, food puzzles inside the house, and napping on the deck. Lenny received love and and lots of scritches. He got to sit on everyone, multiple times per day, which we know is one of his most favorite activities. He got to snuggle his puppy stuffy and his new lovey, the bear. He got to use his smarts while training with me. He wrestled with JoJo. He watched the birds fly overhead. It was a good day.

And I still got to fill my bucket by taking JoJo to the park for a twilight fetch session while Lenny stayed home with a really cool food puzzle. We are finding ways to make it work for everyone, Lenny included.

Learn more about trigger stacking...

Watch: Trigger Stacking and Stress Hormones, Donna Hill, Dogs Explained

Watch/Listen: Stressed Dog? How Trigger Stacking Might Be Putting Your Dog Over Threshold, Susan Garrett, Shaped by Dog

Listen: Trigger Stacking, Renee Erdman, Bravo Dog Knowledge

Read: Trigger Stacking, Explained, Petminded

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Lenny says, "No thanks!"