Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
If your dog gets too excited around other dogs, don't feel bad—countless dog owners deal with this problem and are wondering what they can do to solve it, but are not sure where to start. But what causes dogs to be too excited around other dogs? Why are some dogs fine around other dogs and careless, while others are going bonkers?
The issue may stem from various causes. Some dogs are just prone to be overly excited. This can sometimes be genetic, but to a great extent, it is often a lack of training that causes overly excited behaviors in dogs (unfortunately).
On top of lack of training, these dogs do not see other dogs in their daily lives often and, therefore, the sight of one may cause them to feel overly ecstatic (think of a person who is eager to meet people after being stuck on an island with no other humans for some time).
Regardless of the underlying causes (which we may never know exactly), there are several ways to help dogs that are overly excited about seeing other dogs. Before looking them up, let's take a closer look at some patterns that may take place in overly excited dogs.
Looking closely at these dynamics is important so that we can recognize whether we are making some crucial mistakes that are ultimately feeding the dog's excitement, and therefore, causing our dogs to rehearse the overly excited behaviors over and over in their daily routines.
My Dog Gets Too Excited Around Other Dogs at the Dog Park
Let's face it: Dog parks can look like wild parties; put several dogs together and you'll see dogs running left and right, acting overall bonkers. Sure, it can be quite amusing to watch dogs play, but things can become quite hectic when those dog excitement levels are running so high.
A "Regular" Dog Park Day
Let's rewind a bit for a second. If your dog gets too excited at the dog park, most likely a regular "dog-park day" will look something like this: you put your shoes on, grab the leash and your dog comes rushing to you. You walk together towards the car (well, more than together, he's forging ahead) and your dog doesn't even need you to say anything as he'll readily hop into the car.
You start the car, and your dog is pacing back and forth in the car, possibly whining and whining. As you get closer and closer to the park, your dog is now pacing more and more and whining more frequently and louder. You stop the car, as you have arrived. Your dog moves so much, it's difficult to clip the leash on.
Next thing you know, your dog is dragging you full force and your elbows are almost dislodging from their sockets. You finally enter the park almost tripping and snap off the leash only to "unleash" a dog who is going bonkers playing with other dogs amidst the dust, wagging tails, and cacophony of yips, howls, and barks.
A Chain of Reinforced Behaviors
While this above cliche may appear quite routine, many dog owners fail to realize that all the overly aroused behaviors, starting from the moment the leash was snapped on at home and culminating at the entry to the dog park, are a chain of behaviors that have been positively reinforced.
Science tells us that positively reinforced behaviors tend to strengthen and repeat. This means that all the pulling, whining, pacing, and dragging the owner, will put roots and establish, becoming an integral part of the dog's going-to-the-dog-park behavior repertoire. The more the rehearsal of behavior, the more practice makes perfect.
Dog Excitement Generalizing to Other Situations
Not only does practice make perfect, but many times such overly excited behaviors generalize to other situations such as acting impatient upon seeing the leash, acting impatient upon seeing other dogs on walks, and acting impatient upon going on car rides although to places other than the dog park (because the dog never knows whether he'll go to the park or the vet).
While there's not much you can do once your dog is in full-excitement mode (his brain is just not there), there are several things you can do to reduce the excitement a notch and pave the path for a more dignified entry.
My Dog Gets Too Excited Around Other Dogs on Walks
Just like dogs who get too excited around other dogs at the dog park, dogs who get too excited around other dogs on walks, likely have a history or reinforcement. If your dog is overly excited at the sight of other dogs on walks, most likely your day goes something like this:
A "Regular" Walking Routine
If you walk your dog at the same time every day, most likely your dog is already starting to get aroused when walk-time is around the corner.
Many people wonder whether dogs know the time, and the answer is that we don't really know for sure, but what we know is that dogs, just like humans, have a pineal gland tucked in their brain which is responsible for secreting melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm is just a fancy word that colloquially simply means biological clock.
In any case, as soon as the leash is grabbed, your dog is likely starting to do somersaults. Clipping the leash on is often quite a task, requiring the skill of an acrobat. Although the door is barely ajar, your dog and you are sucked through it as if there was an imaginary vortex.
The walk starts with your dog forging ahead sniffing and looking for all the traces of pee-mail left from his friends. The bush, the lamppost, or the fire hydrant saturated with smells, leads to an enthusiast lunge forward to discover the newest doggy newspaper headlines. The leash is finally slack for a few brief seconds as the dog sniffs and marks, only to return tense again as the dog prepares for the next olfactory discovery.
Next thing you know, you're tripping over and almost falling. Your dog has envisioned another dog and now he is going bonkers. He is walking ahead at the end of the leash and looks forward to meeting his new pal. Sometimes you allow him to meet some dogs (or just can't control him!), other times he's straining against the collar, gasping and getting frustrated about this barrier. By the way, this leash/collar frustration has a name too, barrier frustration is indeed a well-known phenomenon among dog trainers.
Excitable Behaviors Paid With Lots of Doggy Currency
In any case, since your dog has learned that pulling full-force gets him to meet another dog or perhaps just get a tiny inch closer, all this excited behavior repertoire has been positively rewarded with doggy currency (things dogs love).
Again, science tells us that positively reinforced behaviors tend to strengthen, put roots and repeat. This means that the pulling behavior will put roots and quickly establish, becoming an integral part of the dog's walking- on- leash behavior repertoire.
Add the fact that maybe he gets to meet dogs sometimes yes, and sometimes no, has put his behavior on a variable schedule. A variable schedule maintains behaviors, keeping them strong and preventing them from extinguishing. Variable schedules are by the way what keeps people playing the lottery and the slots at Vegas since they win sometimes yes and sometimes no.
This means your dog will always keep trying on pulling in hopes that this time is the good time that he'll succeed in greeting other dogs and get paid with doggy currency.
A Matter of Better Impulse Control
Whether your dog gets too excited around other dogs at the dog park or around other dogs on walks, your dog will benefit from better impulse control. Training a dog to a great extent means implementing better impulse control. Impulse control is not something a dog is born with. Puppies are easily excitable and they have very short attention spans. They want to gain access to anything they want and they have a low frustration tolerance.
As they mature into adolescents, things may even get worse. Now, the puppy is also big and difficult to control and he acts like a stubborn puppy trapped in a big body.
Fortunately, through early training, it is possible to minimize problems. Early puppy training forms a strong foundation that will persist into adulthood as long as the owner is consistent. A few bumps along the road may be felt during doggy adolescence, but adolescent dogs just need to be mentally stimulated and challenged and may need a few reminders about the rules being still the rules along the way.
Impulse control in dog training is just that; teaching a dog to control his impulses. Impulse control exercises for dogs such as having the dog patiently wait for his meals, refraining from jumping on guests, going to the mat when owners have meals, and sitting before having the leash clipped on, are just a few examples of how dogs can learn to lower their emotional responses and impulses.
Impulse control also means increasing a dog's frustration tolerance. Many dogs get frustrated when they do not obtain what they want. Frustration often leads to displacement behaviors such as scratching, whining, and even aggression in severe cases. Dogs who are over-excitable need to learn to cope with their frustration and this is often best done in a gradual, step-by-step approach.
15 Tips for Dogs That Get Too Excited Around Dogs
Helping a dog too excited around other dogs requires a multi-faceted approach. Most likely, your dog's excitability has spread to other areas of his life on top of showing throughout the whole behavior chain that has led to its reinforcing culmination (entering the dog park, meeting another dog). The below tips apply to both dogs excited at the dog park or on walks.
1. Group Classes
Enroll your dog in group classes. Your dog will learn to behave calmly despite the presence of other dogs which will come in handy on walks or at the dog park.
2. Reduce Excitement
Train your dog to be less excited at the sight of the leash. Grab the leash several times of the day and just place it next to you as you watch TV or read a book. Do this several times a day. When your dog relaxes, give him a treat.
3. Train Impulse Control
Implement dog impulse control exercises (like sit before opening the door, before eating, before snapping the leash on) and use them every day. Watch for signs of frustration.
4. Prevent Frustration
To prevent frustration, split the exercises into smaller, attainable steps and reward each little piece of progress. These small, short sessions help your dog succeed and build tolerance as you progress.
5. Use a Front-Attachment Harness
If your dog is difficult to control on walks or when going to the dog park, invest in a front-attachment harness (harness where the leash attaches to a clip in the middle of the dog's chest). Many dog owners report success with a head halter, although these require an acclimatization period.
6. Train Alternate Behavior
Train your dog to perform an alternate behavior to the pulling (sit, watch-me, or attention heeling-my favorite, that is, a dog walking next to you while glaring in your eyes) praising and rewarding them. Practice a lot at home, then in the yard. Make the behavior extra fluent before going on walks.
7. Use High-Value Treats
On walks, arm yourself with very high-value treats. You can find high-value training treats in many pet stores. Chicken, low-sodium organic hot dogs, liver are favorites, but consult with your vet if your dog has a medical condition or your dog has a sensitive tummy. Find what really piques your dog's interest and makes him drool. Consider that what works at home and in the yard, won't likely work in overly stimulating environments. You may also find it helpful coordinating the sessions when your dog's stomach is empty so to increase the saliency of the treats. A full tummy is not very motivating.
8. Keep Them Under Threshold
On walks, make sure your dog is always under threshold. This often means giving him distance from other dogs so he is in a calmer state of mind. At this distance, practice your alternate behavior as a dog is passing from a distance. Praise lavishly and reward.
Consider as well what other dogs are doing. If you are at a dog park, it may be too much for your dog to see dogs who are running, chasing balls or playing. These dogs may send him over the threshold. Also, there are often too many people and smells making it hard to concentrate. Avoid at first the grassy areas where dogs urine marks as it may be too difficult for your dog to focus on you.
Another way to decrease the threshold is by practicing often. Daily walks are important. Seeing dogs only every now and then increases their saliency. There is a phenomenon known as "suburban dog syndrome" which takes place in dogs who live in suburban areas and are reactive to seeing dogs and people because they are not frequent sights. If you walk your dog only on weekends things get more difficult. A daily walk, even if short (10-15 minutes) and just seeing one dog at a distance and him showing a bit of progress can suffix and you can call it a day.
And don't forget about exercise. If your dog is a ball of energy before walks, he will be harder to control and over threshold. Drain a good part of his energy by playing games in the yard that have him running and panting. Let him drink and then go on the walk.
9. Decrease Distance
Gradually decrease distance, but if your dog's behavior gives signs of breaking apart, this is a sign that you may have progressed too quickly. Take a step back or two increasing distance again.
10. Practice With a Friend
If you have a friend with a very mellow dog you can practice with, have her hold her dog on leash at a distance your dog is under threshold, and practice the alternate behavior exercises. If all goes well, over several sessions, you can decrease distance and perhaps do parallel-walking exercises with you on one sidewalk and your friend on the opposite sidewalk. You can then progress over more sessions, to you and your friend walking next to each other with the dogs at opposite sides to maintain distance between the dogs.
11. Skip Certain Activities
If you take your dog to the dog park and you dog is restless in the car, skip the dog park for a while and take him to boring places (vet's office for a quick hello to staff, to go on a walk on a quiet nearby road) or just a ride around the neighborhood without even getting off the car. Your dog's excitement over time should start decreasing.
12. Gradually Reintroduce Activities
Once your dog is calmer in the car, you can go to the dog park, but skip taking him inside the play area for a while. Take him there, but do not enter the play area. Walk him around at a distance from the play area and practice loose-leash walking and attention heeling. Over the course of several days, walk him closer and closer to the play area, but make sure he is kept calm. If his behavior starts breaking apart, this is often a sign of progressing too fast. Increase distance again for a while.
13. Use a Loose Leash
Next, practice walking him on a loose-leash towards the dog park. If your dog's leash is at any time tense, make an about-turn and walk away. Then, once loose again, resume walking, turning around when the leash is tense as often as needed. Practice several days, taking a mental note each time where you were able to get to and trying to surpass that point.
14. Practice Commands
Once you reach the gate, ask your dog to sit, just as you practiced in the impulse control exercises before opening the door to go on walks. Only was he has sat, you can then release him to go play and reward the calm behavior.
15. Be Patient
Realize that changing dog behavior takes time. Embrace progress and its exhilarating feeling but don't get too excited that you progress too fast. Slow and steady wins the race. And don't forget to pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Claudia Mitchell on November 19, 2018:
Our labradoodle is almost 13 years old, has bad hips and still jumps around and gets excited around other dogs. He always has. Not sure if we would still be able to teach him some new tricks, but I'd like to try. Hope you have a nice Thanksgiving.