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Chill Out! Dealing with the Overly Aroused Dog

By Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, CCBC

“Help! I live with the Tasmanian devil!” Some dogs might seize every available opportunity to run, jump, bark, drag you down the street, and act like they haven’t had exercise in two years. “He must have ADHD!” Is the dog exhibiting normal behavior or does he truly suffer from some canine version of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is frequently diagnosed in children, but can it also affect dogs?

In some rare cases extreme energetic behavior can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. If your dog exhibits compulsive behaviors, appearing to never tire out until he is literally exhausted, it may be a sign of a physical problem. A trip to your veterinarian is in line.

Dogs with different temperaments respond differently to reinforcement and punishment and how they are applied or “misapplied.” Dogs lacking in an ability to inhibit behaviors typically choose small, quick rewards; they have a difficult time learning to avoid negative consequences; or may become more aroused and excitable if a reward is present, especially when they cannot have access to it.

So, how do you know if your dog is out of your control because he is either overactive or under-exercised or exhibiting emotional arousal at levels above and beyond his threshold, whereby he cannot control himself or make good decisions? Some dogs are hard-wired to spiral into emotional overload even in low-key situations, while some simply need to be taught to keep their emotional thermostat in check through training.

Dogs need to learn to make good choices and control their impulses. They need to learn to deal with frustration to avoid losing their tempers, throwing a fits or spiraling into a rages and perhaps bite.

Living with an overly active dog can be exhausting and frustrating to both owner and dog. The following are ten tips to help you deal with an overly active dog:

  1. Set Your Dog Up For Success. If your dog is easily aroused in a certain context (i.e. front door, running children, and other dogs playing); do not put your dog in that setting until he understands what you expect from him.

  2. Massage Your Dog. Massage is an excellent form of relaxation. There are many forms of massage available for dogs that you can learn, but teaching your dog to relax by gently and slowly stroking him can help calm your dog.

  3. Mind Toys. Mind toys are a great way to keep your dog busy while giving him mental stimulation. Dogs were bred to work and think.

  4. Aerobic Exercise. Treadmill work is becoming more and more popular for the urban dog since there may not be areas where the dog can run. While the treadmill can be useful, it is important to remember every dog needs the healthy benefits of daily fresh air and outdoors activities as well.

  5. Train his Brain. Get your dog into a training class or find a new sport to do with your dog. There are tons of canine sports available.

  6. Teach Rules When Playing. Impulse control should be part of all play with humans and with other dogs. Overly aroused dogs can easily spiral up. Understand your dog’s threshold and keep him slightly under it at all times.

  7. Respect my Space. Grabbing hold of clothing and body parts is unacceptable behavior. Instead, reinforce the dog for remaining away from you during highly aroused situations or reinforce the dog for exhibiting impulse control.

  8. Don’t Keep the Dog Guessing. Teach your dog what you want, not what you don’t want. If you follow this rule, you will spend very little time becoming frustrated since the dog will understand the rules and the use of punishment will be minimal.

  9. Know the Risks and Rules of Punishment.

  • Choose appropriate strength – If you start off with a mild correction, it may not end the behavior, resulting in more punishment. If you start off too harshly, you may get a rebound effect.

  • Deliver punishment immediately – If you don’t catch the dog in the act, forget it!

  • Punish each and every instance of the behavior – Random punishment can make the dog neurotic and more conflicted, causing higher levels of arousal.

  • Provide reinforcement for desired behavior – Make sure you are not reinforcing the dog after he has performed the inappropriate behavior. For example, the dog jumps up, you say ‘off’, the dog gets off, sits and you reward. You are teaching him to jump and sit.

  • Prevent reinforcement for unwanted behavior – The environment is a great reinforcer to dogs. A peanut butter sandwich on the counter when no one is present is a great environmental reward for the dog if he is able to get it!

10. Watch Your Tone. The way we say something can have a great effect on the dog. High pitch voices or repeated sounds can stimulate your dog. Instead, make sure you are using a calm, low tone when you talk to your dog.

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