Is your dog really happy – or is he over excited?
When excitement does not equal happiness, but unbalanced, unhealthy behaviour…
Sometimes when dogs are sent to me to have a holiday the owner will justify the over excited yapping and barking, the squeaking and leaping about as the dog being excited. What I often see however, is an unhealthy and unbalanced form of excitement, one that on closer examination is not doing the dog any good and is often linked with other behaviours that the owners mention, yet donʼt make the connection. Most of the dogs I see like this are sent for holidays and not for behaviour modification because mostly their owners think that their dog is happy and having fun, they donʼt actually realise that there is a very real problem.
Often the dog shows some kind of separation anxiety, it might be a dog that is fearful of shots, thunder or fireworks, it might bark incessantly and excitedly before walks or if it is getting in the car to go somewhere. It might bark or squeak if a human leaves the room and it may be the kind of dog that jumps up and leaps at strangers. These behaviours are generally over-excited unhealthy ones, especially when exhibited in a frantic excited way and the dog canʼt easily be calmed. They are often married with more than one of the other behaviours listed above.
If these dogs are asked to be calm, instead of lying quietly they will either find it hard to stay still, or if they do lay down, they shake fitfully. If corrected they may even yawn, adding in that kind of stressful squeak that dogs do when they are releasing tension.
Overexcitement in dogs is a very unhealthy state of mind and it actually creates a whole host of behavioural problems. In most cases, the over-excitement comes first and because that energy is never allowed to come down, it starts to manifest as problems such as excessive barking, pulling on the leash, nipping and biting, jumping on people, separation anxiety and even aggressive reactions toward other dogs, around food and so on. These dogs are in a high state of arousal. These dogs may also exhibit signs such as over panting, spinning and pacing or be ball obsessive or over-focused on something. Ball or frisbee obsessed dogs that could play fetch all day every day are often suffering from an unhealthy form of excitement – they are NOT having fun and just enjoying it as owners often claim. Most of us have seen these dogs, yapping and barking for the ball to be thrown, lunging and thrusting on the leash, often barking at the same time in excitement to go and play with other dogs or lunging and barking at waves on the beach. Continuing this kind of play just over stimulates the dog and isnʼt doing him any good.
Agility is another activity where over stimulated dogs are often seen. Although I love agility and think it is a great activity for owners to do with their dogs, I have actually come across a number that have been over stimulated by it
Sometimes fearful dogs are directed to agility classes to help them gain confidence, but what can happen (and I have come across it on a number of occasions) is that the energy actually feeds the dog with nervous energy rather than give it confidence. Calm builds confidence, excitement does not. Then what happens is that rather than focus on the agility course, the dog becomes completely scattered, barks too much and is in a highly unbalanced state. The sad thing is that instead of the trainer then telling the owner this is what is happening and offering to help them, they just continue to encourage them – sadly many of the trainers themselves donʼt even recognise the behavioural problem that is being created either!
Often the problem was not addressed early on and the owner wasnʼt helped to understand the importance of getting their dog calm before they ran the course or before they even entered the arena. If the dog has no focus before the class, they have no hope of gaining focus once the excitement begins. I have been in agility classes where fights have broken out because the trainers and owners are focusing on the activity and the tasks but not addressing any issues arising. In fact, they donʼt even notice those issues. It should not be surprising that these things happen when taking part in a sport that requires a high level of energy and activity. The dogs are often operating under extremely exciting conditions and this will never help a more neurotic or high energy, over excited dog. Other things can create similar problems such as over stimulating play with other dogs, getting into hunting/tracking/sniffing mode and running around aimlessly off leash. The only way to help the dog is to actually limit this kind of play or activity and instead, encourage and reward calm!
Over time, this type of high level of stress is bad stress and unhealthy for the dog. The stress hormones released do not instantly dissipate and can remain in the bloodstream for many hours – maybe even 72 hours to a week. Keep this up over a period of time and the dog will constantly be in a state of stress. This mens that stress hormones remain in the dogʼs bloodstream constantly and over excitement or arousal becomes normal for the dog.
For these dogs they should have focused on leash time, not just pulling along on a harness or sniffing at every scent, urine marking and criss crossing in front of the person walking them – these things can be allowed on a “sniff walk” where the dog is given a longer leash and allowed to explore in his own way after being given a command, or off leash. This period should be kept to a minimum until the dog has learnt to be calm. It can then be built up over time when the dog is ready, but in the beginning, the longer the dog is out doing his own thing, the more his brain can become scattered and lose direction, building the excitement and winding the dog up like a spring.
Itʼs important to reward calm and not give attention or recognition to excitement. We must also be careful not act like the excited behaviour is funny or acceptable. The point is that using “extinction” (ignoring the dog) as a behavioural correction in these cases, when a dog is in an excited state, will never work because the behaviour is self-rewarding. Basically the dog is getting higher and higher on adrenaline. The dog actually needs some correction and help to calm him and this may mean physically laying him down and restraining him in a calm but confident and supportive way – I want to stress here, NOT an alpha roll or dominance tactics! The idea is to support and add calm, a bit like holding a hysterical child until it lets go of tension. As the body relaxes, we are able to release the feel and allow our hands to “hover” over the dog and only hold or make contact again if the dog tries to get up too soon or leap up without having had the muscles relax. It is easy to tell if the dog is still holding tension as often the head will spring round, the body shakes fitfully, the legs canʼt lie on the ground and the eyes are moving or glancing about. When a dog lets go of the tension he goes limp and is almost dozing off. At this point we can even gently rub him to show that this is what we want – but we have to be very careful not to add any exciting energy into this!
To help keep a dog calm and to train in calm, it requires practice and ideally obedience exercises used alongside strong rules and boundaries. These things add in mental and emotional exercise for the dog and can be just as tiring and draining as physical work. Over excited dogs often need more mental and emotional work, as itʼs not always an under exercised dog that is over excited, in fact it is often the opposite.
Things like insisting a dog is calm and quiet before the leash goes on or off, before he gets in or out of a car and making sure that any noise or excitement is not rewarded will all add to a dogʼs understanding that only calm is rewarded and that calm is what we want. If we arrive home and our dog is leaping and barking, we do not enter the gate or house until he is calm and quiet and if he starts again he is not greeted until he again makes the change to quiet and calm. It is important to remember that itʼs not just about quiet, itʼs about quiet and calm. We need to give focused exercise on leash and not allow too much high energy time. In games with other dogs, the excitable dog must be recalled and frequently asked to get calm so that the sessions do not build up and up, winding the spring until he tips over the edge. High energy, excitable play is the type that can quickly lead to a fight. Avoiding exciting environments or activities is not the answer, practicing calm within them is.
It is not simply a case that a dog that is over excited is under exercised. In some cases this is true and giving a dog the right amount of exercise will bring about changes, but just as often, over excited dogs do NOT need more exercise to help drain their energy, in fact their problem is something else all together. They actually need to learn to come down in energy, have more calm and have more laying around and doing nothing times in their life. Teaching a dog “down” and insisting that it practices it and only gets up when a release command is given is good for helping a dog learn to just chill out.
It takes time and effort but is worth it in the end – and it could help prolong your dogʼs life!
Tamasine Smith – Leadchanges (Dog behaviour modification)