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Layered Stress Model

I really love this visual for understanding the Layered Stress Model created by Chad Mackin. The different levels of stress should be taken into consideration in particular for reactivity. Think of it this way; we all (including the dogs) have a threshold of things we can take in a day before we just lose it. Imagine you’ve had a headache since this morning (health level) and then your boss yells at you, and then your child gets sent home early from school, and jussssst when you think the day of over, your husband forgets to clean the kitchen. And you lose it on him. Your husband would be right to assume it’s not just about the dishes, there’s more to the story here. The layers of stress leveled to create your outburst. Similarly, every being has a threshold at which it fails to perform, and importantly to us, dogs are beings.

We’ve all heard of the dogs that just “snap” out of nowhere. Although this phrase drives me crazy for about 18,000 different reasons. Let me put it simply, dogs DO NOT just snap out of nowhere- but me may miss signals or may not be aware of certain layers of stress existing. Maybe your dog has a sore paw and you weren’t aware, and when your other dog went to play with him as usual, the first dog snaps. Or maybe we’re not aware there were 10 extra packages delivered today and the dog’s stress is higher.

It’s important to realize in this model, we are not just focusing on the triggers for dog training. When trying to counter condition reactivity issues or desensitize certain triggers, we must focus on the general overall dog when we look at behavior issues.

There are important aspects of every level here. I think the health is pretty self explanatory. The emotional and physical health whether chronic or active are affecting the dogs layers of stress.

Really near and dear to my heart is the lifestyle level. Freedom to express natural behaviors is a critical aspect go good lifestyle. Consider what is a biologically appropriate lifestyle is for your dog. Remember that wild dogs naturally travel up to 75 miles a day. They are constantly scavenging for food, mating, playing, and sometimes, fighting. What do we let them do? Personally, I don’t let my dog mate, I don’t let her travel 75 miles, and I don’t let her fight. It simply isn’t realistic to let her do all of these things. So I try REALLY hard to find surrogate activities for all of her biological needs. We play tug (and I let her win, almost ALL the time), we play wrestle, I feed her out of scatter toys to access her seeking system. I always, always, always, let my dog off leash to explore and fosters and clients walk on long lines so they can really access their environments.

Clarity becomes really important in dog training. Dogs are constantly trying to figure out how to live in our world without getting into trouble. They are constantly watching us and adapting to us. They are trying to make us happy, so let them! Be clear about what it is you want- using a marker (clicker or “yes” marker) for desired behavior and an “uh-uh” for behavior that isn’t allowed right now, but is at some points. I use no for behavior that is never ok, like biting cords. What are the rules? Consistency and clarity are key here. We want to stay away from creating frustration and want to let our dogs know how to “work the system.”

The leash is a huge layer of stress for most dogs. Instead of using it as a communication device, we create frustration and only use the leash for restraint. If a piece of leather is the only thing keeping you and your dog together, we have a problem.

Finally, triggers are the last straw types of events the dog can no longer handle. We can mitigate these triggers by allowing space and showing the dog exactly what we want from them, even in the fact of their triggers.


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