Often when we see a very active dog that has an open mouth “grin” on their face, tongue hanging out, running about with owners in tow, we think, “Now, there’s a happy dog!” The question is: is that dog really happy, or is it over-excited?
Excitement does not always equal happiness. The extremely “happy” attitude we see is usually overexcitement and is more often than not a sign of a behaviorally unbalanced dog. This overexcitement is usually linked with other unwanted behaviours, but the connection is not often made between the two, and the solution is usually the same – more exercise. But what many people don’t realize is that one of the main factors that contribute to overexcitement is too much physical exercise.
Physical exercise is a necessary part of life for all breeds of dogs. Exercise helps keep our dogs happy, healthy, and well behaved. However, some problems arise when a dog is not exercised properly. One of the biggest and most ignored problems is over-arousal due to exercise.
There is a widespread myth that “crazy” dogs should be exercised more in order to keep them calm and well behaved. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. A high energy dog that receives only high-intensity exercise as an outlet for its energy is constantly in a state of arousal. The term arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and mental control.
A highly aroused dog will be outwardly very excited. Some dogs may show just an open mouth grin with tongue hanging out, and might be unable to settle. Other dogs may be panting, jumping up, or vocalizing incessantly. They may also become grabby, or mouthy, may chatter their teeth, or you may notice full-body shaking. They may spin in circles, pace back and forth, or merely be unable to settle in one spot for any length of time. Alternatively, a highly aroused dog may freeze and become fixated on a stimulus (such as a toy, or another dog). A highly aroused dog will generally have a high heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. They may drool excessively, may have dilated pupils, and will have poor impulse control in response to the stimulus.
A highly aroused dog is stressed. Stress is usually thought of as negative stress or distress. But there is another type of stress called eustress, which is positive stress with potentially negative implications. In human terms, we feel the effects of this stress when highly exciting situations occur, such as winning the lottery or buying your first house. The emotional response to negative and positive stresses are different, but the body actually responds the same.
So what does that mean for our dogs? It means that exciting situations still create a physiological stress response in our dogs. This stress response causes physical changes in the body, which releases stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just go away as soon as the stimulus has passed. It can actually take up to 6 days for the stress hormones to leave the system, provided no other over-stimulating, or stressful situations occur in the meantime.
Therefore, if a dog is engaged in activities that cause them to become aroused every day, they will produce stress hormones every day, and the dog will always have a high level of stress hormones in its bloodstream. This state of arousal and excitement will now become the norm, and no amount of physical exercise will help to correct the dogs’ state of mind.
Dogs in this state have a difficult time calming down and controlling themselves and are often reactive and hyperesthetic (overly aware of movement and sounds). It can make training, socialization, and visits to new places difficult. It can also create further behavioural problems stemming from the stress of being over-aroused, as well as frustration from lack of an appropriate outlet.
So, how do we correct their behaviour without overexercising? By creating balance. Humans balance their lives every day; work, exercise, fun, and necessity. This balance helps keep us happy and healthy. Dogs require this same balance in life. A balance between physical exercise, mental exercise, and socialization will help prevent the buildup of stress hormones and help create a calm, healthy, happy mind.
The level of intensity of the dogs’ over-excitement will determine how to proceed with creating balance. The high-level intensity dogs generally require at least one week of strict exercise restriction. By preventing the dog from doing the over-exciting activities that create the production of hormones, you are allowing the body to actually get rid of those hormones altogether so that you can start a balanced training program.
It does not mean you can’t exercise your dog; this merely means that you have to choose the appropriate exercises to prevent stimulating hormone release. Healed on-leash walks, and obedience/focus training are the best options during this restriction phase. If you have a running or herding breed, such as a Husky or Cattle dog, you may need to continue taking them for runs, but this should be done in a controlled manner; on a leash, keeping your dog at an easily extended trot to create focus, not excitement.
Attempting to start a more balanced training program without first allowing the hormones to leave the body will likely set you up for failure. It will be almost impossible for your dog to calm down and focus enough actually to learn. Once you are through the restriction phase, you can really start to ramp up the mental exercises. Testing your dogs’ brainpower, and slowly re-introduce off-leash runs or playtime. But remember, balance is key! Mental and physical exercise must go hand in hand to keep the balance.
So, if you have an overly-excited dog that is impossible to tire out, has little to no focus, and is constantly moving, jumping up, pulling on the leash, or just not listening in general, give exercise restriction a try. You will need to be able to take your dog for daily (or multiple times daily) leash walks, and you will need to have a lot of patience! But if you persevere, you will be on track to a calmer, happier, more focused relationship with your beloved companion.
Written by: Van Isle Veterinary Hospital