When your dog’s triggers cause you anxiety

On a recent coaching call, I was working with a guardian on the next steps for her dog’s behavior modification plan.  We were working together to help the dog feel more comfortable around other people. Both the dog and her guardian had been doing amazingly well up to this point so I was excited to raise the bar.  

I asked the client,  “Progress has been going well.  How do you feel about the next steps?”

“My dog is doing great but….”  And she paused.  I could see her become emotional. 

“It’s just hard,” she continued.  We’ve spent so long avoiding triggers and preventing other people from getting too close, it’s scary to think about stepping outside our comfort zone.”  

And that made me pause and think.

We have come a LONG way in dog training and behavior modification over the last 20-30 years.  Canine body language is becoming more mainstream so guardians can recognize signs of stress in their dogs. We know that an ideal learning environment is one that allows for more agency and less pressure. 

But something often overlooked is how difficult it is for humans to step outside the comfort zone. 

They have spent so long avoiding their dog’s triggers.  Sometimes, even years.  And now, we are going to intentionally expose the dog to the very thing they are scared of and have a history of reacting to?  


How do we address the very stressful, very real feelings that come up for the guardians?

First, we use science and follow a desensitization process. 

Desensitization (DS) is exposing your dog to a trigger but at such a low level that it does not induce a stress response in your dog.   It is usually paired with counterconditioning(CC).  

Over time, this DS/CC process allows the dog to feel more comfortable around those people/dogs/things/sounds that were causing stress.

Done correctly, it is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  Some guardians say after a session, “Well, nothing really happened.”  To that I say, “Great, well done!”

But it can still be anxiety-inducing for the guardian.  After all, they know their dog’s history.

If the thought of exposing your dog to their triggers as part of a desensitization plan gives you anxiety, keep reading for 3 things that may help.

1.  Have a plan to get the heck out of there if it is too much for you or your dog.   

Guardians sometimes ask me, “What if my dog starts to get worked up?  What if my dog reacts?  What do we do if the situation escalates?” 

Bail.  Leave.  Get outta there. Abort mission.

Before starting a DS/CC process, I teach guardians a flight cue to use with their dogs.  Anxious or nervous feelings can come up because of feeling trapped, no escape.  Knowing you have an “out” and knowing how to communicate this option to the dog can go a long way to reduce anxiety – for both ends of the leash.

We practice this flight cue until 2 things happen: the dog gets happy upon being given the cue AND the steps are second nature for the guardian, like muscle memory.  

If you have any feeling that your dog might be approaching their threshold and possibly have a reaction, just leave.  This is especially true in the early stages of desensitization.  

What this does for the dog is more practice using “flight” instead of something else. 

What this does for the guardians is increased confidence in their handling abilities and increased proficiency in reading their dog’s body language to note more subtle signs of stress.  

They know when and how to intervene to support their dog if needed. 

2.  Go into a DS session with a clearly defined goal.  

Another source of uneasy feelings for guardians comes from not knowing:  not knowing what to do in a session, not knowing what to do if things go sideways (see tip #1), not knowing how to record results or define success.

By answering those questions before you begin your session, you are setting yourself up for success.

Yes, we are working around the dog’s triggers in desensitization but it is not random.  It is not “let’s try this and hope for the best.”   DS is methodical and systematic.  

Before you begin a session, you should have a general idea of where your dog is right now.  Are they fine with dogs behind a fence but lunge and bark when a dog is out of a walk across the street?  Is your dog more comfortable with people approaching outside your home versus a guest coming into your home?   Identify the situation you feel your dog is most likely to be successful.

Then, consider the 3 Ds of dog training:  Distance, Duration, and Distraction.  

These 3 parameters can guide you on how to raise criteria for your DS sessions.  For example, when working on acclimating your dog to guests in your home, you might focus on:

  • Have the guest inside your home with your dog 15 ft away (distance)
  • Have the guest inside your home for 5 minutes (duration)
  • Have a guest inside your home telling an animated story and talking loudly and gesturing (distraction)

That is an oversimplified example but hopefully gives you an idea on how to play with criteria while still keeping your dog under threshold

Define in measurable terms your goal for the session and what success will look like.   If you don’t know what your target is, you have no way of knowing if you hit it.  

Was the goal of your session to get closer to a specific person?  To walk by another dog from 15 feet/5 meters away?  To have a guest sitting calmly on your couch for 10 minutes while your dog chews on a bone?

You should feel fairly confident your dog will be successful.  Again, we aren’t looking to make giant steps in a short amount of time, but rather small steps over time.  

3.  Have a way to track progress. 

Tracking progress is critical.  You need real data to get real results.   

Reactivity is emotional for the dogs and the guardians.  When bumps in the road happen, it can be easy to get stuck in a negative thought pattern.  You may question if your dog is even improving.  When this happens, go back and look at your data.  It will tell you objectively if your training approach is having the desired effect.  

If you are feeling nervous about a particular DS session, review previous successful sessions.  Seeing a history of where your dog has done well can make you feel more confident. 

Tracking progress is also a great way to keep you motivated. It reminds you of how far you have come and can guide you on how to set up future sessions for success.

Tracking progress can include journal entries, videos, and/or an actual progress log noting various behaviors and how often they occur.  Pick a method that works for you and is sustainable long-term. 

Does working around your dog’s triggers feel stressful for you?  Tell me in the comments how you cope.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back next year with a new blog post. If there is a certain topic you want me to cover, let me know!

All my best,


P.S. If you found this post helpful, share on social media and tag me.  If you know someone who might benefit from this post, please share it with them. 

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