Breath in, Breath out: Fighting panic in dogs

Last week I had an email from a woman who was genuinely afraid that her dog was suddenly becoming aggressive. The story went at first that she and the dog drove to her parents’ house (stopping one night in a hotel), and when they arrived and she let the dog off leash he was initially fine with the other dogs and people that he had met before, but at dinner time he attacked the mother’s older, smaller dog. Luckily the injuries were minor, but everyone was understandably shaken.

From further investigation I discovered a few new facts. The woman and dog had recently moved to a new house, the dog had surgery the month before and had not been able to play with other dogs for several weeks, they were stuck in traffic the second half of the trip with no A/C in the car, when they arrived at the parents’ house it was being renovated, and the “victim” dog was wearing a cone due to a minor medical issue. All of this added up to one major event of trigger stacking.

It might sound like a game you play on your phone, but trigger stacking is no fun for your dog. So what is it exactly? Trigger stacking is when too many of the things that cause your dog anxiety happen around the same time, causing your dog to have the canine equivalent of a panic attack that often looks like or results in an episode of aggressive behavior.


The dog in this case had just experienced a total change of environment not only from a new house, but also a road trip. His normal exercise routine was off because he’d been housebound from the surgery. He was hot, confused and probably tired when they arrived at their destination. We can’t be exactly sure what happened with the little dog, but seeing his dog friend in a cone might have been the final straw.

It is important as we enter festival season with outdoor doggy events, as well as the possibility of a hurricane evacuation, to be aware of the stressors our dogs face. Too many of these stressful events put together can be dangerous, and even the most friendly, Zen-like dog is susceptible to trigger stacking. In people terms, we usually call it displaced aggression that takes the form of something like snapping at our spouse for asking a question after we’ve had a bad day of work, nasty weather and terrible traffic.

Some things like weather we can’t control, but we can remove dogs from overly crowded areas, make sure they are not overheated or hungry, ask strangers to please not pet them, and do routine checks to make sure there are no small injuries that might push our pup over the edge in a stressful situation. Also, if it really does seem like your dog’s behavior has changed suddenly and drastically, always consult with your vet to rule out any major medical problems.