What’s a Trigger?

guard dog
Guard dog on duty.

As I was meditating this morning, idly wondering what it would be fun to blog about next, Pettigrew, perceiving some dire threat to our home, started barking and tearing around the house.

With my eyes closed, taking deep breaths, I could hear him growling, racing across the floor, scrambling as he fought for traction on the slippery surface, and then clawing at the window as he tried to get out. In my mind’s eye, I saw the inevitable path of destruction, area rugs knocked askew, mail toppled from the table, and possibly a few new gouges on the floor.

The meditation app I use says it’s OK to have some background noise, but I wonder if the makers had in mind meditating while your dog is going crazy.

All systems alert.  Possible intruder detected!

In any case, it gave me an idea for a blog!

When Pettigrew entered our lives, he brought with him a whole new vocabulary: triggers, reactive, to name a few of the words that didn’t used to be part of my everyday speech.

These are euphemisms. Triggers are anything and everything that makes my lovely dog go berserk. Reactive describes the violent snarling, snapping, let-me-at-‘em dog he becomes when exposed to a trigger.

In the beginning the list of triggers was long; mail carriers, anyone who knocks at our door or walks up our front steps, bicycles, people on crutches, people using canes, squirrels, anyone who comes up from behind us on a walk, skateboards, other dogs, did I say mail carriers? they deserve a second mention, motorcycles, trucks, thunderstorms, vans. You can’t imagine how mortifying it is to walk a dog that exhibits signs of ageism.

One of my walking buddies joked that I would develop a very strong right bicep as she watched me struggle to prevent him from tearing after a squirrel.

But then, I hit on a solution. A happy fairy whispered in my ear that what Pettigrew would like best of all was a stuffed squirrel. He did. Within a matter of days he had shredded that squirrel and used his teeth to puncture the squeaky toy inside, silencing the beast forever. I only wish I had thought to take a picture of my triumphant dog, blissfully calm, lying on the ground surrounded by scraps of gray cloth, white tufts of stuffing, and a deflated plastic disc. For some reason it didn’t seem like a photo op at the time. Go figure.

What, you may ask, did we do after this clear sign of success? We bought him another squirrel, and another, and another. Once Pettigrew had vanquished 10 stuffed squirrels, he lost all interest in real ones. Now they can come skittering down the trunk of a tree two feet from his nose and he barely looks up. They’ve been known to freeze for an instant on the sidewalk in front of us, and Pettigrew could care less!

Flush with success, I scoured the Internet for stuffed versions of his other nemeses. I struck out in my attempts at finding a stuffed mail carrier, but I did find several different versions of stuffed dogs. I don’t think they were designed for this use, but undeterred, I ordered a variety. Pettigrew dutifully ripped them up a bit, but the effect wasn’t the same. They couldn’t hold his interest. He still has his own code for determining friend from foe and a sniff fest that looks like it is going beautifully can erupt into an altercation in an instant.

To handle the inevitable encounters, I’ve developed a strategy. When I see a dog approaching, I ask the walker if the dog is friendly. If the walker says yes, we go forward. Pettigrew is great with friendly, passive dogs. As long as he can be alpha, all is fine. If the walker hesitates or says no, we cross to the other side of the street. So far, no one has turned the question on me and asked if my dog is friendly. I’ve decided it’s best to be on the offensive in these types of situations.

Now that Pettigrew is over nine years old. He’s mellowed quite a bit. The list of triggers has shrunk, although he has fine-tuned his hatred of mail carriers and can distinguish their trucks both on sight and by sound. He is also on to their uniforms. I’m always happy when a new carrier has joined the force. They don’t get their uniform for the first few months and my life is much quieter.

I like to believe that I have learned strategies for containing him. I cross streets, walk in the other direction, walk up strangers’ front steps, carry treats (not as often as Pettigrew would wish), keep our meet and greets with other dogs short and sweet, and make judicious use of shortening the leash. It makes me feel good to think I’m learning, but in my heart of hearts I know that Pettigrew still rules the roost.

Did I mention that he is great with puppies? He can stand calmly in the midst of a scrum of snapping, barking, jostling puppies. They don’t bother him at all. See, at his core, he’s a softy….


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