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Over the Top and Out of Control: Life with an Over Aroused Dog

2 days before Halloween 2023 Buck came into my life. In spite of having my name on the waitlist with a reputable and ethical breeder, I found myself returning to his adoption profile again and again. Buck was a 6 month old Australian Shepherd who had been abandoned in a busy park in San Francisco. In foster he lived with 12 cats, 6 dogs, navigated life in a city, got along well with everyone and was just waiting for the right trainer or dog sport enthusiast home to give him the environment and training he needed to thrive.  Convinced he was the perfect dog for me, I snatched him up and brought him home. 

It wasn’t long before I noticed signs that he had over arousal issues. Buck was easily stressed, overstimulated, and anxious. Every dog needs time to adjust to a new home, but Buck seemed to be struggling more than average. Walks quickly turned into a stressful endeavor for everyone as the longer he was outside the more he would jump and mouth. The mouthing was so bad we had multiple instances of torn clothes and bruises - these would be more accurately categorized as level 2 bites. Play dates with other puppies were almost futile as it would take him hours to calm down afterwards. And anytime we attempted to play with toys he would just ignore the toys and immediately go for our hands and arms. Here I was with a 6 month old high energy dog and I was struggling to meet his basic needs because leaving the house was so overwhelming.

Thankfully I had my trainer education and years of experience to fall back on. Through months of dedicated training and patience, I am happy to report that Buck is now enjoying his walks (and so am I). We are still working on his arousal issues out in the world and around other dogs, but he has become an easy pup to live with at home and he is making progress everyday.  I thought I would share our experience for the dog parents out there who may feel like their dog is easily over stimulated.

Before diving into training recommendations, lets cover some physiological and behavioral signs that your dog may be struggling with over arousal:

  • Jumping

  • Mouthing/nipping

  • Dilated pupils

  • Excessive panting 

  • Spatula tongue (the tongue becomes elongated and wider at the bottom and may curl up, this occurs after significant panting)

  • Fixating (unable to break focus on something)

  • Unable to take food

  • Taking food but with a hard mouth

  • Excessive pulling on lead

  • Inattention to handler

  • Whining

  • Barking or lunging on lead 

  • Rough play and difficulty reading other dogs social cues and cut off signals

  • Inability to settle 

  • exercise and play don’t seem to “tire them out”

It is important to try and determine what environments and triggers might set the stage for these behaviors. Some dogs may struggle with some or all of these any time they leave the house. Others may only get over aroused in specific conditions.

It is also important to understand that when your dog is over aroused  their brain is getting hijacked. Whether caused by stress or excitement they are over their arousal threshold and are not in their thinking brain.  The good news is through rewards based training we can teach them better coping skills and work to get their brain back on board. 

Management and Prevention

To help our dogs learn to relax, we first need to try and prevent the situations that send them over their arousal threshold in the first place.  This can be more or less challenging depending on your environment and your ability to manage any specific triggers. For Buck, we took 2 months off of neighborhood walks. We have a small yard that works for potty breaks but I started setting my alarm an hour earlier and driving him to an open space park before the crowds would get there. It took some time to work up to longer walks, but by setting a predictable routine in a quiet area with lots of opportunities for sniffing and free movement we got there! We also made sure to weave in a lot of training and enrichment to fill his needs. After our 2 month break and consistent training we were able to incorporate some neighborhood walks again. They will never be as relaxing as sniffing in nature, but it's nice to have the option!  Here are some other management examples:

  • If your dog is over- aroused by other dogs, avoid busy walking times and consider going for a decompression walks (think a long lead and lots of sniffing) somewhere with lots of space from other dogs. If your dog is pro social and you frequent the dog park, consider switching to private play dates with known dogs in a yard or a SniffSpot. Dog parks are unsafe for many reasons, but especially for dogs who have a hard time regulating arousal levels.

  • If it’s toy play that sends your dog over the moon, keep play sessions short! Play for 10-15 seconds and take a break. Watch for the physiological signs from above that your dog’s arousal levels are getting too high. Switch gears before they go over threshold. You can also help regulate arousal by asking them for any variety of simple behaviors before re-engaging in play. Ask for a hand touch or a sit before you throw the toy. The behavioral itself is trivial, the goal is just nt to re-engage their frontal lobe by asking them for something they know well. 

  • If critters are making your dog have a freak out, try and walk somewhere that doesn’t have as much access to wild life. For many dogs, when they have a history of "hunting" in a particular environment it becomes a habit. So switching to a new environment can do wonders for breaking the obsession with looking for critters and allow you to practice better skills with them.

  • If your dog is struggling with arousal inside the home it is important to find a way to comfortably confine them. A baby gate, crate or tether will be necessary if your dog is jumping and mouthing inside the home. You can create routine times of day where they are confined for relaxation and naps. It is also important to be able to safely remove yourself if your dog is unable to be redirected to a more appropriate behavior when they are too excited or stressed.

The importance of good sleep 

At full maturity, dogs have about the mental capacity of a toddler. And just like toddlers, dogs can get cranky and exhibit undesirable behaviors when they are under slept. Below are the common recommendations for sleep depending on your dogs developmental stage:

Adult (1-5 years): 12-14 hours

Puppies (0-12 months) 18-20 hours 

Seniors (5+): 18 - 20 hours

Dogs that are easily overstimulated may have a hard time sleeping or napping around the daily household activity. Giving them a quiet place to sleep away from foot traffic and noise is essential. If your dog is crate trained this can be helpful, but even just having a bed in a quiet room can work. If you suspect your dog is having trouble sleeping you may want to consult with your vet.

Relaxation Training

The most common mistake I see people make with their over aroused dog is focusing too much on trying to tire their dogs out and not enough on training the behaviors they actually want to see.  While it is essential to try and meet your dogs daily exercise, mental and social needs this is often a LESS IS MORE situation.  Trying to solve arousal issues by adding more exercise and stimulation can exacerbate the problem and train your dog to expect an unsustainable amount of activity. Instead, I encourage clients to focus more energy on relaxation training.

I start this out teaching a basic down stay on a mat and then work through  Dr. Karen Overalls relaxation protocol. This protocol naturally weaves in distance, duration, distraction to help your dog learn how to remain calm when there is activity going on around them. This is the skill I train the most and it is the most universally helpful for dogs and their people. Once the skills have been trained, you can take their relaxation mat many places and it can be a context clue for your dog to settle.

The "Find It" Game

The "find it" game is another great way to drain excess energy while rewarding focus and engagement with you. Simply give your dog the verbal cue "find it" and toss some treats on the floor for them to search for. This helps gets your dog sniffing which lowers their heart rate and encourages them to calm down. It also helps redirect their focus away from whatever is causing overstimulation. 

Impulse Control Exercises

Dogs who struggle with over arousal often also struggle with impulsivity. While I am not a fan of making a dog perform a sit and wait at meal time, I do like teaching a wait at curbs and at thresholds for safety. I use a sit and wait to access life rewards like seeing dog friends or playing with toys. Additionally, working on games like Susan Garrett’s “It’s your choice”, building a strong "leave it", and a rock solid "stay" can be enormously helpful in tempering impulsivity. 

Chin Rest

Training a dog to rest their chin on your lap or hand is a win-win exercise for everyone. It’s not just cute, it’s also functional! One of the common issues my clients have with their over aroused dogs is mouthing. Some dogs may only do it in certain contexts but others learn quickly that this also gets attention effectively and may rehearse it frequently. For those dogs, a chin rest is a nicer way for your dog to request your attention. It also shows them a more desirable way to interact with your body that doesn’t involve teeth!  When a dog is doing a chin rest they can’t be panting or mouthing, in dog training we call this an incompatible behavior. A chin rest requires a closed mouth which in turn allows the dog to engage in deep nostril breathing which is helpful for relaxation and regulation. 

When to talk to your vet

Working through over arousal issues takes time, patience and consistency. It can take some trial and error to find the right balance of exercise, enrichment, training, and rest to help your dog learn to become calm. If your dog is young (under 2 years old) they may also need time to mature a bit. However, over arousal issues can also be a sign of discomfort or clinical anxiety disorders in dogs. If you are applying the above tips and still feel like you are unable to make progress you may want to talk to your vet about a pain assessment and/or medication to assist in your dog’s training. 

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