Why does my dog get over aroused?

Allowing dogs to continuously rehearse aroused behaviors can cause many problems. To get a better understanding of arousal in our dogs, we need to look at the definition of arousal.

“Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It involves the activation of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond.” According to Wikipedia.

Although this definition were written for describing arousal in humans, exactly the same count for your dog. When aroused you might notice that your dog is quite tense and ready to go, ready for action in a flash. Different things or events might trigger your dog to get aroused. Triggers might include other dogs on a walk, people walking past your property, you playing fetch with your dog or your child interacting with your dog. Whatever the reason for your dog getting aroused, in some cases this arousal level gets so high that he cannot contain himself, and this causes him not to think clearly. When this happens, the high energy interferes with his judgement and the result is poor behavior.  During this period of high arousal, your dog might be barking at the man walking in the street the one moment and the next he will re-direct his energy to another possible dog or even another child or person. In another instance you might be playing tug of war with your dog, and the next moment he might nip your arm or hand. As he is over aroused at this point, he bites down harder as normal and might even puncture the skin.

The thing is, over arousal is a build-up of unused energy that needs to go somewhere. If you leave it and accept it as normal behaviour it is likely to evolve into something more serious. In some cases it can lead to trigger frustration and that in turn might lead to unwanted destructive behaviors. This might for instance cause a dog to get aroused at the sight of any other dogs, and he might start chewing his lead because of this. In more severe cases, arousal can change into aggression. Because your dog now gets over aroused at the sight of another dog, and he is restrained on his leash, he might redirect his aggression to you and he might end up biting you or whoever is walking him. It is important to take steps to lower this arousal threshold if you should own a dog who gets quickly aroused. As the dog don’t know of any other way to behave when aroused, it is our duty to teach them how to have better control over their emotions.

So how do I know if and when my dog is over aroused?

Many dog owners don’t even know that they actually have a problem as they are used to their dogs acting in a certain way. Breed types often gets blamed for this, saying as this is a working breed or power breed, they are supposed to act this way. What owners don’t realize, is that with a little bit of training and guidance, your dog can be taught how to be calmer and to have better control over his impulses.  So what does and aroused dog look like? The following are tell tail indicators that your dog might be over aroused.

  1. He might have a very fast heart rate.
  2. He might be panting very rapidly
  3. His pupils might be dilated
  4. He might have a stiff body posture, ready to run
  5. His teeth might be chattering
  6. He might be jumping around with lots of barking
  7. He might get mouthy, taking your hand in his mouth
  8. He might be pacing up and down
  9. Some dogs spins in circles
  10. His impulse control will almost be non-existing.

How do I lower my dog’s arousal?

In many cases, we as owners are the main cause of arousal. The first step is to change our own behaviors in order to help our dogs not to get aroused. Here are a few things you might give a try.

  1. Make an appointment to have your dog checked out by a veterinarian. There are medical conditions that might be responsible for anxiety and stress that might lead to over arousal. You might also want to visit a nutritionist to work out a new diet for your dog as some food additives have been associated with over arousal in dogs.
  2. Provide Physical and Mental stimulation. Many of us have dogs that were originally selectively bred for their useful functions. As we have them now as pets, we expect these dogs to cope by not doing anything. Well this is a recipe for behavioral problems. If we don’t give our dogs the mental and physical exercise they NEED in order to cope, they will find something to do by themselves in order to make themselves feel better, and it might be something that we might not approve of. An increase in the stress hormone cortisol is also linked to under stimulated dogs. The bottom line is, the lack of stimulation both physically and mentally is a recipe for disaster in dogs.
  3. Avoid your dog from getting over aroused. If you know that your dog gets over aroused at certain places, rather look for alternative places to walk the dog, maybe where there are no other dogs for instance. If your dog gets over aroused by playing ball, lessen the times you play ball and give him some alternative things to do. The times he gets over excited should be lessened.
  4. Identify the things that gets your dog over excited. Watch your dog and try to figure out what is causing the over arousal. Maybe it’s you coming home, the sight of his favorite toy, maybe when he sees another dog, maybe if you visit the agility field. Write all these possible triggers down so you can start working on encouraging better self-control.
  5. Desensitizing to triggers. Desensitization is a behavior modification technique that works very well in the sense that it will teach your dog to lower his arousal levels and to keep under his threshold. This means you start working at a distance where the triggers are less intense. If your dog barks and gets over aroused at the fence, control the area so there is enough space between the possible dog walking next to the fence and your dog. With enough distance between them, your dog will get less aroused.  In many cases dogs gets over excited when the owner pics up the lead as he associates the lead with his walks. In cases like that you might start picking up the lead and just putting it somewhere else repeatedly during the day. In time he will get less excited when you pick up the lead. The same goes when you gets home. If he goes crazy every time you arrives home, try to keep yourself at a lower key until he has calmed down. When you are less excited your dog will become less excited too in time.
  6. Teach your dog to be calm. Once you have successfully desensitized you dog to the stimuli that caused the over excitement, you can actually start teaching your dogs that calmer behaviors gets rewards. When he gets aroused, the rewards simply goes away. Feeding time is a good example here. When your dog gets too excited when you are busy with his food by jumping up, just stop working on it until he is calmer. When it is feeding time ask for a sit before presenting his food. If he jumps up before you put his food down, pick it up again and only gives the food when he offers a calmer sit. In this case being calm = food. Calmer behaviors gets reinforced in this way.
  7. Increase the criteria. This must be done with great care. If you see your dog gets aroused by some trigger with moving him closer to it, take a step back and increase the distance. It is a good idea to start the behavior modification in an area where there are no or very few distractions. Slowly add distractions as you go along. If you see the dog gets aroused by the identified trigger, add distance again.
  8. Be careful of repetitive behaviors. Dogs do what works for them, and behaviors that gets reinforced (rewarded) will be repeated. If you practice a sit for example, the more you reward your dog for the sit the more he will repeat the behavior. In the case of your dog barking at people it gets a bit more complicated. As people walk past your house, your dog might bark at them. While he is doing this, the people disappears as they continue their walk. In the dog’s mind, him barking at them, made them go away. The strategy worked for him therefore next time somebody walks by he will probably barks at him again, making him go away. If you allow these behaviors to continue the desensitization will not work. Keep him away from situations that might cause arousal until desensitization has been successfully completed.
  9. In extreme cases, calming medication might be needed together with a desensitization program. This is mostly done in cases where a dog’s arousal gets triggered by conditions like underlying anxiety and stress. In these cases the dog will not be able to learn as unless he can be calmed down. A veterinarian will prescribe the best drug to help in specific situations. Once the dog is calmer, a behavior modification program can begin. Drugs alone in such cases will not solve the problem and must be done in conjunction with a behavior modification program.

To lower arousal in a dog is not that easy. It takes quite a lot of effort but even more important it takes consistency. You need to be able to “read” your dog and know the most subtle signs of him getting aroused. Intervention is needed before he gets aroused. The best thing to do would be to get the help of a force-free qualified behaviorist to help. The end goal would be to raise your dog’s response threshold and to change his emotional state when in close approximation of the trigger causing the arousal. Alternative more appropriate behaviors should be taught as well. Many trainer uses a method called flooding where they force the dog to be “calm” by punishing them for those unwanted behaviors. These averse methods however only suppresses these unwanted behaviors but don’t change the dog’s emotional responses towards the triggers. These methods also causes stress and anxiety and although it would seems like it worked, the dogs might quickly revert to those unwanted behaviors triggered by anxiety and stress.

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Force free science based behavior modification and training

Eden K9 Abilties

George van Huyssteen (DipCABT)
Practitioner Member CAPBT International
Garden Route, South Africa
0711362170