Does Your Reactive Dog Need to Take a Break?

Have a high-energy dog who struggles with reactivity (barking, growling, lunging, whining, and more) to triggers like strange people, other dogs, or even animals like squirrels, rabbits, deer, or lizards? Then this post is just for you.

In this post, we are going to talk about trigger stacking, how to know when to take a break from walking and hiking with your dog, and ways to burn off extra energy if you need to spend a few days avoiding your dog’s triggers. 

If you haven’t read the other blog posts in our care for active dogs with reactivity series, let’s start with a few definitions:

A “reactive dog” is a dog who responds to a trigger/stimulus with behaviors that a person considers out of proportion to the stimulus. These big responses often include behaviors like barking, whining, lunging, and growling. Commonly, a dog labeled as reactive is a dog who “over-reacts” to noises, other dogs, strange people, or different animals. Often these over-reactions are due to underlying stress, anxieties, and phobias, although they can also result from frustration and over-arousal. 

A “Trigger is the stimulus that a dog sees, hears, smells (or otherwise senses) that results in the reactive behaviors

You can read a lot more about the basics of reactivity in dogs in our Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog post.

Okay, now that we have established the basics, let’s talk about a dog’s cortisol response to triggers and why that matters for people with dogs who display reactive behaviors when hiking or walking. 

What is cortisol and why does it matter?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released in response to stress. It is helpful in fight or flight situations, as it curbs body functions that are non-essential in crisis situations. Cortisol also helps fuel your brain with sugar and increases the availability of substances that help repair tissue.

But along with all of the benefits cortisol gives in helping people and animals survive, it can also have a lot of negative effects. Especially in the long term. And the more general stressed a dog is, the quicker their body and mind are to shift into fight-or-flight responses.

The build-up of cortisol through repeated exposure to stressful triggers is sometimes called trigger stacking. Let’s take a look at trigger stacking a little further and why it is important for owners to understand trigger stacking in dogs.

Trigger Stacking

When dogs encounter multiple triggers in a row, cortisol levels can build. This decreases the dog’s threshold for triggers and typically increases the intensity of reactive behaviors. 

Ever been walking your dog and a rabbit runs out in front of you. Your dog gets ready to run after it. You take a deep breath, refocus your dog, and keep walking. It goes okay.

Now imagine a walk where you encounter 5 different rabbits within the space of a city block. How easy is it to refocus your dog now? It’s not easy at all. In fact, it probably became harder and harder after each rabbit crossed your path. That’s trigger stacking.

Another way to imagine this is to consider stressors in your own life. Imagine you are driving in heavy traffic. A car moves into your lane, cutting you off and causing you to hit the breaks. It happens once. It’s aggravating, but you remain fairly calm.

Now imagine 5 cars within 5 minutes darting into your lane and cutting you off. Are you still as calm? Probably not. You are likely feeling a little bit of road rage. That’s trigger stacking. 

And it doesn’t even have to be the same trigger repeated. Ever hear the phrase “that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.” You know, like when you are crying because you stubbed your toe? It didn’t even hurt that much, but maybe that day you had a flat tire, were late for work, spilled your coffee, dealt with a really angry client, got stuck in an extra 30 minutes of traffic on the way home, and now that you are finally home, you stubbed your toe and you “just can’t” anymore. 

I don’t know that dogs feel exactly like that, but that is another example of trigger stacking. Stress and cortisol levels build up. So as much as you may want to take your dog on an overnight backpacking trip or on a 10-mile hike on a busy trail, consider your dog’s triggers, how much stress your dog exhibits in response to the triggers, and whether or not your dog is ready. Don’t force your dog to experience so much stress that they “can’t even.” Make sure experiences will be good for both you and your dog. 

I highly recommend considering the potential for trigger stacking on all adventures with any dog. But it is even more important to consider for dogs who are more prone to reactive behavior.

To continue with the example above, if you are hiking with a dog who struggles with reactivity, you will need to determine whether or not your dog is ready for a specific trail. If not, can you choose an alternative trail that you expect to have fewer triggers for your dog?

Another aspect to consider is whether or not your dog has dealt with very many triggers in the days leading up to the hike. If at all possible plan a few quiet days before and after a big adventure to allow your dog a chance to relax and unwind.

However, even with the best preparation – planning, a good behavior modification plan, etc – sometimes your dog will end up over threshold and exposed to too many triggers. So what do you do then?

My recommendation: End your adventure as soon as you can and plan a “cortisol vacation” for your dog.

Take a Break and Go on a Cortisol Vacation

Ever hear mental health advocates recommend that you actually take and use your vacation days from work? If your dog is struggling with reactivity and has had a bad day, you can help your dog take a vacation too. 

Let your dog recharge in a low-stress environment. For some dogs, this can mean not walking the neighborhood and, instead, walking on a quiet, low-use trail. For others, it could mean walking at night when neighbors aren’t out and about. And for some, it might mean no walks or hikes at all. 

Yikes, I know right? Did I really just recommend not walking your dog daily. My dogs and I walk rain or shine at least once a day, 365 days a year unless the temperature is below 5 degrees F. Or there is severe weather. So really we walk or hike at least 355 days a year.

But from what I have learned about reactive behavior, sometimes it is okay (and actually better for your dog) to take a break. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can just sit at home and ignore your dog. Especially if you have a high-energy pup. But if your dog is reactive to other dogs, strangers, or other triggers that they only encounter away from their house, give your dog a day or two staycation if they have had a few hard days and are exhibiting increasing episodes of reactive behavior. 

Inside the house, you can work on training skills (operant conditioning) such as a good look at me, solidifying your about-face, or even teaching your dog some fun “party tricks”. I am an Amazon Affiliate and earn from qualifying purchases, but if you are interested in teaching your dog new tricks there is a fun book you can purchase on Amazon called 101 Dog Tricks: Step by Step Activities to Engage, Challenge, and Bond with Your Dog.

You can also give your dog some puzzle toys to work on. I love stuffing Toppls or Kongs with wet dog food and freezing them for longer play (<-these are also Amazon links). Or play fetch and teach your dog to find objects around the house. Additionally, you can consider scent detection training. Sniffing has the added benefit of helping to decrease cortisol levels. Just check out the results of the Dog Field Study. Dogs’ noses are incredible.

Want some more suggestions for how to exercise your dog without leaving the house? The Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS) website has a good article with some additional suggestions.

Or are you interested in learning more about the concept of a “cortisol vacation”? Check out this article published on the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants journal’s website.

And once you and your pup are nice and rested and relaxed, you can head out to those hiking trails once again.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

One thought on “Does Your Reactive Dog Need to Take a Break?

  1. Helle Kate Pederson! I always think about taking a break from walking and hiking with my dog. I found myself lucky that I came across your blog. As you mentioned, Take a break and go on cortisol vacation, Which really helps me in making me and my dog stress-free. And also helps my dog to recharge again. Keep sharing!

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