Trigger…Happy

Recently I was lucky enough to travel to the east coast on a business trip. After a week of work, which included coaching new professional  dog trainers and working closely with St. Hubert’s Animal Shelter and CATCH Academy staff, Chelsea Rock, WHS Behavior Training Coordinator, and I grabbed a train heading for New York City to see the sights.  I should have better prepared myself.

Catherine and Chelsea get Trigger...Happy in New York City
Catherine and Chelsea get Trigger…Happy in New York City!

I grew up in the country. My idea of a crowd was when there were two people on the bike trail between my friend’s home and mine. I never learned to navigate a public transportation system except on a few group trips to San Francisco for Guide Dog puppy socialization – and then, I had a dog with me on whom to focus and adults who led the way. I live a pretty simple life and don’t enjoy loud noises or bright lights. My introverted nature needs a quiet place in which to contemplate important decisions.

So, in the underground maze of Penn Station, with multiple transportation options, confusing corridors with up and down stairs leading to tracks going opposite directions and crowds of travelers speaking a variety of languages and hundreds of signs, maps, banners vying for my visual attention and a crazy cacophony of sensory overload, to say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. Truly, I saw dogs down there, and throughout the city, that were handling the triggers better than I did. But, they probably grew up there.  I didn’t.

Blog 1 Blog 3I didn’t know where to go. I wanted to find something familiar but couldn’t decide where to turn. Chelsea took one look at my face and said, “We need to get you to a Starbucks.”  Smart behavior expert, that one. She could tell I needed something familiar, a treat to calm my nerves and a few minutes of down time.

This is when I started thinking about all the clients I work with who have fearful dogs.  I knew that this experience would help me communicate to them what a dog in a crisis needs.  The dog might have one or two triggers which cause anxiety or he might have several.  But when he is on stimulus overload and headed toward panic, that is not a time for training, any more than I could have begun to learn a foreign language in the middle of my first visit to Penn Station.

How to help your dog be happy around triggers:

  1. Distance him from the triggers. Get away to a safe place whether that means 10 feet or 100 feet away. If he can’t hear you, keep going further.
  2. Check body language. If the dog is still hyper-vigilant, pupils blown and stress-panting, you are still too close or you need to give the dog a moment to settle.
  3. Offer a treat. If he can eat, you can train. If he cannot eat, you need more time or space or to stop completely and try again another day.
  4. Start with I Spy: when your dog sees the trigger, feed the yummy food. When the trigger disappears, remove the food.
  5. Keep the session short – 10 repetitions is plenty. Don’t belabor the point and leave him wanting more. Now’s the time to walk away and think about setting up a training session to work on the triggers, one by one.

 

Believe it or not, there was a Starbucks smack in the middle of Penn Station and Chelsea led us right to it. (She’s the best travel partner!)  After a venti mocha and a break to gather our bearings, we were able to locate a ticket agent and overheard that the family in front of us were going to the same destination. We asked if we could follow them and off we went.  A little time and space, a great deal of understanding and knowing I was with people I could trust made all the difference and my anxiety subsided. All the same triggers were there… but suddenly I was happy. If you need some help navigating through your dog’s fears, please reach out – we’ve got the support, understanding and coaching you need.  Contact us at behavior@whs4pets.org.

Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA

Behavior Program Manager at Willamette Humane Society
Named “the dog lady” by peers in grammar school, Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA first became a California licensed veterinary technician, then finished a BA in Psychology while doing undergraduate research on the human-canine bond at the University of Montana. After that, she was recruited by the Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital to develop the ABC puppy school, to assist during veterinary behavior consultations and to help create and instruct the Purdue DOGS! behavior modification course for veterinary staff. Catherine is now an adjunct faculty member at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon and instructor for the state’s only community college level professional dog trainer certification preparation program which began in Fall 2014.
Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA