Do you know how to calm your pet down when he gets into a frenzy of excitement? Tim Falk reports.
A happy, excited dog is a wonderful sight to behold: bouncing up and down, tail wagging her entire body, unable to sit still and every fibre of her being seemingly bursting with energy and unbridled joy.
But sometimes our pets can take their excitement a little too far and work themselves up into a state of hyperactivity. In other cases, you may simply find yourself in a situation where a hyperactive dog will only cause trouble, so you need to be able to bring your pet back under control as soon as possible.
In these situations, it’s vital you know how to calm your crazy dog immediately and with a minimum of fuss. But before you can tame your savage beast, you first need to learn why he gets into such a state of excitement in the first place.
“If a dog hasn’t been taught and trained positive ways in which to behave in various situations, they will have no way of controlling their excitement. Over-socialisation can also cause extreme levels of excitement where a dog has, from previous experience, always had the opportunity to, say, play with every other dog. They simply will build an expectation from their experience that they can have contact and play with every single dog they see.”
Alisa Sannikova, animal behaviour scientist from Sydney dog walking and training service Perfect Dog, says over-excitability is all about having an excessive amount of energy in anticipation of something good happening, but without the self-control to release it slowly or channel it into appropriate behaviour.
Dogs will often get overexcited when they know something amazing is going to happen from past experience. For example, if you play a rowdy and fun wrestling game with your dog as soon as you get home, then your dog remembers that and is already in a state of hyper-excitement when it hears your footsteps and the doorknob turning.
“Scientifically speaking, it’s the anticipation of a reward that often causes a huge spike in dopamine in the brain and not necessarily the reward itself,” Alisa explains. “But any hyper-active behaviour that then is rewarded confirms to the animal that it’s worthwhile to keep acting in this way.”
In some cases, a hyperactive reaction to a situation can be caused by fear or anxiety, but usually it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two if you watch closely. “A dog that is nervous or unsure will be more likely to back up from whatever he is looking at, or look like all his weight is in his back legs and have a tucked-under tail. He’ll also be more likely to move his ears and his attention back and forth, as he will be under pressure and acting hyper-vigilant,” Alisa explains.
“A dog that is hyperactive with excitement, on the other hand, is more likely to be focused on the object of his attention with a happy facial expression and jumping around or running in circles in an attempt to play.”
How to calm a crazy canine
It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’ve got a dozen friends arriving at your place for a backyard barbeque. Buoyed by all the noise, the new people and the delicious smells, your pooch quickly reaches a state of hyper-excitement. When she’s not running figure-eights around the legs of bemused guests, she’s trying to jump up and lick each person on the face.
You need to calm her down, but what can you do? One of the most commonly suggested solutions is to simply ignore your dog. However, Alisa says that ignoring often doesn’t work because the dog is sometimes too excited to realise you’re ignoring her. It’s worth a try, but if you’ve seen no behaviour change in the dog after around 10 seconds, it’s time to look at other strategies.
“Try to find and reward even the smallest amount of good behaviour amid the excitement,” Alisa suggests. “For example, if your dog is bouncing endlessly to see you, watch carefully for a second when all four feet are on the floor and the dog has paused slightly. That’s the perfect moment to quickly tell her she’s a good dog and start patting. Even though she’s still excited, she’ll slowly start thinking, ‘Did I make my owner come pat me by standing still instead of jumping?’, and repetition will help improve this response over time.”
You can also redirect your pet’s attention to objects that require her to be calm. For example, toss a handful of treats on the ground when you see your dog start to get excited, and your dog will be rewarding himself for sniffing and looking down while eating them. Alternatively, offer your dog a long-lasting treat such as a KONG or marrowbone stuffed with food, which requires him to lie down and chew if he wants to get anything out of it.
“It’s also a great idea to redirect excess energy into toys, such as a tug toy if the dog is tugging at your clothes. You can then start tugging more and more calmly as you play to help your dog realise it’s time to drop that energy level,” Alisa says.
Of course, if you want your dog to get to a calm and relaxed state, you will also need to remain calm. Your dog will respond to your energy, mood and body language so if you stay calm, you have a better chance of bringing your dog back to a balanced frame of mind.
“If you swing your arms or act frustrated, you may end up teaching your dog that being around you is scary or unpredictable, but it does nothing to teach them self-control and how to behave the right way. Or worse, your dog might think you’re trying to play back and get even more hyperactive,” Alisa explains.
Setting up for success
Prevention is always better than cure, so it’s important to take steps to stop your dog getting overexcited before it actually occurs. “You would be best to start training in a good, solid foundation of obedience, which will help you and your dog have a level of communication that you can use when your dog starts to become overexcited,” Alisa says.
“Ignoring a dog doesn’t always work as it can make your dog try harder in order to gain your attention. Having your dog on lead and rewarding for good behaviour is a great place to start.”
One idea to help your dog learn the importance of paying attention to you at all times is to play a game of food fetch. This is where you throw a piece of food for your dog to run and chase. When he returns for more, try to get your dog to sit before you throw the next treat.
“This can get your dog thinking about what he needs to do in order for him to gain another treat and allows for some physical output,” Alisa explains. “If your dog doesn’t sit straight away, you can work on this when your dog is calmer and in a better frame of mind to learn.”
Regular training sessions with your dog can also help a great deal in getting her under control and listening to you. Keep sessions short and sweet, stay consistent and patient at all times and end on a positive note. Alisa strongly encourages owners to play impulse-control games such as “stay” and “leave it” with their dogs, so that your pet learns how to remain calm even when it’s difficult.
“And the best training tool any owner has to get their dog under control is a good, strong ‘sit’ — they can’t be obnoxious easily when they have their butt on the floor,” Alisa explains. “Remember that, like a fire drill, dogs need to get the actions in their muscle memory so that they can do them without thinking in high-energy situations. So you need to help your dog out by practising sit in all sorts of different places and always rewarding when he gets it right.”
Finally, recognising the triggers for your dog’s excitement and avoiding them whenever possible can also help. Anticipation causes excitement so if you know your dog is likely to start getting excited soon, you can intervene before things get out of control and prevent the dog getting rewarded for bad behaviour.
“If you’re on the street, you can encourage your dog to walk with you in another direction from the source of activity or, when at home, you can break up the routine. Picking up car keys causes your dog to flip out? Try picking them up every time you’re going to sit down and watch TV and soon your dog will realise that car keys don’t guarantee a trip to the park,” Alisa says.
And if you’re still struggling to figure out what causes your dog to misbehave or how to calm him down, find a force-free dog trainer who can create a training plan to teach your dog how to be polite in all sorts of situations.
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