One of our small dogs tends to get very excited—very excited—when it’s time for a walk, or dinner, or play, or pretty much anything that looks like it could be fun. She spends a lot of time in a state of eager anticipation—“oh boy, what are we going to do now?!!?” If we’ve been quiet for a while, and then get up preparatory to doing something, she does her happy dance. And if it’s anywhere near the time when something else usually happens, it’s a happy dance with vocals! (Unfortunately, one of our other little dogs has learned how much fun this can be and tends to follow her lead. Luckily, the two other dogs tend to take things as they come).
We know that anticipation is fun—getting ready to go to a party, on a vacation or out to dinner—and that, in fact, it’s often more fun than the act itself (the party could be a dud, as could the vacation or dinner), and generally takes up a lot more time. Anticipating something fires up the seeking circuit in the brain, which releases pleasurable chemicals, like dopamine. When a dog hunts, that circuit is activated … the dog enjoys the act of hunting, which would be excellent in the natural world, where hunting would be necessary for survival. If a dog didn’t want to hunt, he probably wouldn’t survive long. When you think about it, hunting is the ultimate anticipatory act.
People who train their dogs for sports often use the combination of eager anticipation and excitement for their own ends—retrieving, Noseworks, agility, dock-diving. It can, however, cause problems both in and outside the home, if your dog gets overly excited or aroused when you don’t want him to.
This energy system is also activated when a dog is alarmed. At the sound of an unknown noise or unexpected sight, epinephrine (adrenalin) is released, preparing the body for action—either fight or flight. The heart rate increases, and blood is sent to the muscles needed for rapid movement and away from the surface of the skin. So, if the dog needs to fight, he won’t feel much pain until after the fight is over. If the dog needs to flee, he can go much faster and much further than he would if he weren’t pumped up with chemicals. Epinephrine is very good for animals in the wild, where an action not taken can end in death. It’s not always so useful in our world. And it can take a long time for the dog to calm down after going into arousal … days for some dogs.
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Arousal Can Be Addictive to Dogs
One of the problems with arousal is that it appears to be addictive. When a dog sees another dog and goes into a state of excitement (whining, pulling on the leash, sometimes barking), he might be anxious and alarmed—or he might be enjoying the dopamine rush. Sometimes he might start out being frightened, but over time he loses the fear and just goes into eager anticipation particularly when he can predict certain situations. Some dogs might eagerly anticipate the third house on the block where they know a dog will be barking behind a fence. They’ll pull their owner all the way there, and then bark and lunge at the fence. Often, they’ll bark at the fence, whether the other dog is there or not! These dogs are addicted to the high. You could probably give them whole steaks and they wouldn’t eat them … until they’ve finished barking.
Many dogs will sit at a window or in their yard and just wait, anticipating that a bird might light on a tree, or a squirrel run along a fence. When that happens, the noise can be startling and, well, extremely annoying. If you tell your dog to stop it, it generally won’t work. If you call your dog back and reward the recall, the barking will cease, but now you feel like you’re rewarding barking! If you don’t do anything, the behavior will generally get worse. Most dogs don’t get used to the squirrels and stop responding to them, because it feels so good to bark.
Think of arousal as a red cloud of energy that interferes with judgment and causes poor behavior. Sometimes arousal manifests as uncontrolled excitement, sometimes with a target (another dog, perhaps), sometimes not (puppy rushes or “zoomies”). Sometimes it is sustained anticipation. No matter what, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of conscious thought going on while a dog is in that state, probably because the chemicals activated in their brains have little to do with thinking.
A recent consult concerned a dog truly addicted to that adrenalin rush. He started out going after moving things, mostly with wheels—skateboards, bicycles, scooters. But before long, he had generalized the behavior, going after baby strollers ... then backpacks, then anything hanging off of people. When he latched on, it was almost impossible to remove him, and it was very scary. Nothing anyone said or did could disengage him. This is actually a compulsive version of the predatory instinct, and is quite difficult to work with.
Here’s an example of what arousal can do in a multiple dog family. Three dogs are playing in the yard, when another dog walks by with his owner. The three family dogs race to the fence, barking ferociously. Suddenly one of the three turns on one of the other family dogs, and attacks him. The attacking dog was in arousal, and the energy he was producing had to go somewhere—so it was redirected on one of his friends.
Arousal can lead to aggression toward other dogs, pets or people, or major destruction. Many dog attacks are caused by arousal, often in conjunction with the predatory drive, which can also cause dogs to go out of control.
Matter of fact, we humans are excellent at inadvertently teaching dogs to get overly excited. There’s a type of training called isolation or deprivation training. To use this method, a trainer will intentionally isolate a dog for several hours. When the trainer finally pays attention to the dog, he or she is really motivated and often in a state of arousal. Dog owners don’t intentionally do this, but if you’re gone for 8 to 10 hours, it’s likely you come home to a bored and lonely dog. Your entrance might cause her to go into paroxysms of delight, racing around, picking up toys or balls and/or leaping up on you. If right after that you take your dog out for exercise, you may compound that excitement. That, in turn, can cause a dog to act without thinking.
These two Beagles were having a grand time attacking the fence (and a dog on the other side). They became so excited, they attacked each other!
Working on the Problem
Uncontrolled excitement is something that we all need to be aware of, and something that we try to control, so the dog can learn that other emotional states are reinforcing. Some dogs are naturally calmer than others, but we can help easily excited dogs learn to inhibit their own excitement.
We can do this by analyzing when our dogs get excited, and actively working to remove the stimulation or counteract it. For instance, dogs can get overly aroused when we come home and greet them, so calm, matter-of-fact greetings—or no greetings at all—might help them calm down. Dogs get very excited around meal times, so varying the time we serve meals will help them control their anticipation. And dogs can get extremely aroused when they even think a walk is in the offing. Mixing up cues helps calm these dogs—picking up the leash and then putting it back down again, doing the same with keys, or reading the newspaper until the dog settles, are all ways to teach your dog that you’re not going anywhere until the energy is right.
Another thing you can do is to interrupt dogs often during play—call them to you, have them sit, and then let them return to play. After their play session, make sure they relax before you start a new activity. If you take a dog out right after he’s played enthusiastically, he is likely to be ready for more action!
Training can consist of a variety of things. Obedience±sit, come, down, stay, polite walking—is always valuable, particularly if you practice on a daily basis, first in calm areas, and then in areas that might ordinarily excite your dog.
Teaching your dog to use his nose is an excellent way to increase focus and decrease excitability. Just tossing a bunch of kibble in the yard and then letting him search for his food will help. At first he’ll run madly around the yard, but as his instincts are honed, he’ll be able to show more concentration. Your dog’s nose is his primary sense—may as well use it.
You can also show dogs how to relax and help them learn to enjoy it. Having the dog lie down, and then gently petting him will make relaxation reinforcing. Having him sit quietly while watching others in action can also be very helpful. One of the most useful techniques for Strider, a German Shepherd with leash reactivity, was having him lie down on his rug close to people playing dog sports like fly-ball and agility—both of which tend to be very active and noisy. At first, he got reinforced every few seconds with a treat on the ground, (where he had to look for it). After he learned to relax, we didn’t need to use the food reinforcement—just lying on his rug became enjoyable.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our dogs go into an overly excitable mode. When they’re like this, pretty much anything can take them over the top, whether it’s a buzzard flying overhead, a dog walking half a block away, or a jogger coming up from behind. Instant relaxation is obviously not possible, so what do you do?
First, it’s a good idea to prepare mentally for situations such as these. Ask yourself what you would do if a bicycle suddenly turned a corner ahead of you and zoomed past. Or if another excitable dog started barking at your dog. Oftentimes, just practicing a smooth move over and over again will take a lot of the impact away. Pulling a u-turn or moving to the side of the road can be effective. If your dog is already excited, then following the u-turn with some jogging might help move the energy in the direction you’d like.
Remember, your dog doesn’t know he’s doing something “wrong.” He’s just responding to stimulation in his environment with energy of his own.