If your dog could talk, they would ask you to walk them defensively. Whether you have a new puppy, adoptee, or an older dog defensive walking can lower stress for all the animals involved
For many dogs, being restricted on leash, in the busy urban environment is overwhelming. If you have a new puppy, recent rescue, or a dog struggling with fear, reactivity and aggression you probably know this already. The truth is that a relaxing walk for us can be a bit tougher on our faithful pups. Of course, some dogs love their daily walks! But, for a proportion of dogs, long walks in the urban environment may actually be doing more harm than good.
“Defensive walking” takes a ‘dog-centric’ approach to ensure the dog has minimal negative experiences and can feel confident on walks. It involves distracting, avoiding, creating distance or shielding your dog from these urban triggers, minimizing ‘trigger stacking’ and stress on a leash walk, and showing your dog that you are there to protect them from harm.
Defensive walking is for every dog! Although primarily used by handlers of reactive dogs on busy streets, these skills are valuable for any sensitive dog, puppies learning to walk on a leash, and new fosters and adoptees.
Firstly, let's chat about why some dogs find walks so overwhelming. We can begin by asking the question: what is a ‘trigger?’ A trigger is any stimulus that could potentially make your dog feel stressed or fearful. This varies from dog to dog, but can be things like...
- The doorbell/buzzer ringing
- A dog barking in the distance
- Distant sounds
- Vehicles passing
- Novel/strange objects
- Being approached by a stranger
- Direct eye contact
- Being reached for by a stranger
- Passing by a dog on leash
Some dogs are sensitive to all of these (e.g. generalized anxiety), while others are only sensitized to some (e.g. skateboard phobia). Remember - your dogs have a far better sense of smell, and hearing than you so there are a lot of potential triggers you can’t even perceive!
What is Trigger Stacking?
“Trigger stacking” occurs when dogs encounter multiple triggering stimuli in succession, without sufficient time to decompress in between.
Think of each trigger as a drop in a dog’s ‘stress bucket. As they walk, the bucket fills - flooding their body with with adrenaline and cortisol and heightening sensitivity and lowering self regulation.
Studies of human subjects have shown that it can take roughly 60 minutes for cortisol levels to decrease by half after one stressful event.
This means that if your dog is encountering multiple triggers on a walk, their cortisol levels are not being given any time to come back down to normal levels. These excessive circulating stress hormones, over long periods of time, can push dogs closer to their “threshold," creating a ticking time-bomb of stress that could blow at any minute: ‘the straw that breaks the camel's back’ springs to mind here.
These excessive levels of cortisol can take a lot longer to come back down, meaning that you may even see seeming overreactions for a day or two after a series of trigger stacking.
Physiological Signs Of "Trigger Stacking"
You may see mild to extreme behavior relating to trigger stacking in your dog. Some dogs have sensitivities to specific triggers - which immediately filling their bucket upon sight. While others find multiple triggers mildly stressful - and their bucket slowly fills over the course of a walk.
Mild Stress Signs:
- Stress ‘smile’
- Wide eyes
- Facial tension
- Stiff tongue
- Excessive scavenging
- Leash biting
- Difficulty focussing
- Hyperarousal or over-excitedness
- Leash pulling
Severe Stress Signs:
- Lack of appetite
- Unresponsive to cues
- Sound sensitivity
- Excessive startle
- Jumping and climbing up the handlers legs
- Extreme or frantic leash pulling
- Whining and barking
Defensive Walking Concepts:
When defensive walking use the following techniques to shield your dog from triggers, and keep stress levels low.
- Bring food on every walk: Classical conditioning works! Using high value reinforcers - like chicken, steak, and cheese - build good associations with going outside. Use food to reinforce good behaviors and distract them before things get too overwhelming.
- ‘Sniffari’: Instead of focusing on covering ground, walk slow. Encourage your dog to self-soothe by tossing food for them to sniff out: cueing them to “find it” (we call this a ‘sniffari’!). Sniffari style walking helps dogs focus on a simple task at hand - find the food - rather than getting overwhelmed by the environment.
- Take things slow: Dog’s thrive on the familiar. Rather than challenging a fearful or stressed dog with new roads, smells, and sights, stick to one or two blocks and practice slow sniffari walks until your dog is comfortable. THEN, try increasing the perimeter and walking further.
- Body-block: Put yourself in between your dog and potential triggers (strangers passing by, people rolling bags or carts, bikes, dogs or anything your dog is worried about). This sends a clear signal to your dog that they are protected and don’t need to perform defensive aggression.
- Check blind corners: When approaching blind corners, bring your leash hand back behind you to hold your dog in position, just behind your body, as you lean forward to check there are no potential triggers around the corner. When you see the coast is clear you can drop your leash hand back down and move on.
- Create space: Dogs need space from the things that scare them, and are very sensitive to spatial pressure, so giving them plenty of physical space from potentially triggering things can go a long way in keeping that stress bucket empty. Some go-to ways to create space for your pup are:
- Crossing the street
- Ducking behind parked cars or trees,
- Do a u-turn and walk away from the trigger
- Or simply pick up your dog and run the hell away if needed!
- “Find It”: If you need to give your dog space from an oncoming potential trigger, toss some treats away from the trigger for them to find while the trigger passes by. Tossing away from the trigger helps teach your dog to take space from potentially stressful stimuli.
- Take The Pressure Off: Many dogs find pressure on the leash concerning and constricting. This lack of ability to escape can exacerbate defensive aggression. Be particularly mindful to not tense up the leash when you see your dog getting nervous as this can make it worse! Teaching dogs to respond to leash pressure is a great exercise to enrich a defensive walking protocol: learn how to in our FREE IGTV Training Class.
Draining The Stress Bucket
Sometimes stressful walks, where the dog is exposed to triggers stacking, are unavoidable. Helping our dogs relax - draining the proverbial stress bucket - is key to helping our pups keep their cool and preventing stress from stacking in the system.
We can split this decompression into two areas, directly after a trigger (e.g. a skateboard passes by), and after a walk where trigger stacking occurred (e.g. as soon as you get home or to your destination).
Lowering Stress On Walks :
- Treat/kibble scatter in grass - even a small patch of grass will do. Just scatter a handful of treats or kibble in the grass and let your dog sniff and snuffle for these. Sniffing helps your dog to regulate their breathing and focus on information gathering and problem solving.
- Find-it games - this is much like the scatter game above, teaching a “find-it” cue can help your dog to focus on sniffing for a dropped treat, this can be done multiple times in a row.
- Decompression walk in nature - this is a term coined by trainer Sarah Stremming, where she describes this as “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature.” If you are lucky enough to have a quiet natural area to let your dog sniff and wander, utilize this often!
Decompressing When You Get home:
- Relaxation Training - this is something that you’ll need to be working on regularly in low-distraction situations to build up a conditioned emotional response. Read more about Relaxation Training here.
- Lickable/chewable enrichment - food is a great distraction and long-term chews or lickable enrichment are great to help your dog dissipate some of their nervous energy in productive way. Read more about lickable/chewable enrichment here.
- Safe Space Time - Mild sensory deprivation, like crating or a penned area, or even a quiet room to themselves to rest (as long as the dog is comfortable alone) can help dogs shift into authentic regenerative relaxation. Pair this with a food activity to help your dog destress before sleeping. Sleeping has been shown to actively help with processing of traumatic experiences, as stress is exhausting, so replenishing this energy is necessary to avoid seeing behavior problems elsewhere.
- Down Time - Where possible, try to have a quiet day or two after trigger stacking or a stressful event, like a vet visit, to give adequate time for your dog’s stress levels to come down to a healthy level.