How to Calm Down Your Hyper Dog
The Truth Behind Hyperactive Dogs
If you own a hyperactive dog, you may be pulling your hair out wondering how you can help your hyper dog calm down. Before you become bald, it's important to first take a closer look into what hyperactive behavior in dogs really entails:
- What behaviors suggest your dog is hyper?
- Is he bouncing off the walls when you come home from work?
- Does he go bonkers when he sees the leash?
- Is he jumping, nipping and barking?
- Is he constantly bringing you a slimy ball in hopes of playing fetch?
Well, you may feel a bit better in knowing that what looks like a hyperactive dog most likely is not. Because . . . drum roll please . . . it turns out that truly hyperactive dogs are quite rare. In this article, we will discuss the following:
Facts About Hyperactivity in Dogs
- The Truth Behind Hyperactive Dogs
- What's a Truly Hyperactive Dog?
- If My Dog Isn't Hyperactive What Is He?
- 7 Reasons Your Dog is Overactive
- 6 Ways to Calm a "Hyper Dog" Down
Debra F. Horwitz, veterinarian and Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, claims in Clinician's Brief that hyperactivity is “a rare clinical syndrome" and the signs noted by owners are usually attributable to other factors. It's sad that often dogs labeled as "hyperactive" are surrendered to shelters as if there's no solution to help them out. Often, this is a result of poor choices made when selecting breeds. It's unfortunate that dogs are often chosen based on looks or Hollywood trends, without keeping into consideration temperament.
This is sadly what happened in 1997 with the release of the movie "101 Dalmatians" which caused impulsive purchases of Dalmatian puppies. Only later, after the puppy cuteness factor weaned off, did the impulsive buyers realize that this breed needed a tremendous amount of time and energy which may not have been feasible in busy families with children. The end result? Buying on a whim resulted in hundreds of Dalmatians being surrendered. Just think that the Dalmatian Rescue in North Miami Beach received "130 Dalmatians" in a short period of time.
To have an idea of the extent of the problem consider that Pati Dane, the Director of the rescue claimed that it usually took two and a half years to get that number!" This makes a good headline for a sad movie-documentary "The one hundred and 30 surrendered Dalmatians"
So, if your dog isn't really hyperactive, what is he? How can you explain his behavior? Understanding what is really going on with these dogs will help equip you with several options to help you out. Read on for a more in-depth look into the dynamics behind those high-strung behaviors in dogs.
Hyperactivity is a rare clinical syndrome characterized by overactivity, attention deficits, impulsivity, high resting basal physiologic parameters and a paradoxical calming response to amphetamines."— Debra F. Horwitz
What's a Truly Hyperactive Dog?
First off, let's take a closer look into what real hyperactivity looks like. To quote Debra Horwitz, she defines hyperactivity as "overactivity, attention deficits, impulsivity, high resting basal physiologic parameters and a paradoxical calming response to amphetamines." Sounds complicated? Let's dissect it a bit so we can better understand what true hyperactivity really entails.
Hyperactive Dogs. Dogs who would fit this bill would be very active, to the point of engaging in frenetic activity, they would have abnormally short attention spans and they would be highly impulsive to such an extent of being easily distracted and unable to focus on a task for a while. They would also have a hard time settling-- even after the stimuli is removed and, just like kids with ADHD, they would show signs of improvement when prescribed stimulants like amphetamines (paradoxically).
These dogs aren't able to focus even if they wanted to, they are highly aroused and unable to habituate to minimal changes. If there's lack of stimulation or if they're restrained or say they're ordered a "stay" command, they have a hard time settling and will engage in undesirable activities.
What Horowitz describes as "high resting basal physiologic parameters" most likely refers to the physiological state these dogs are when at rest. Bonnie G.V. veterinarian, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists explains in her book Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers how hyperactive dogs presenting in the exam room tend to be slim dogs with a high respiratory rate and increased heart rate.
They also salivate a lot, are very alert and overreact to noises. Their responses are therefore physiological, not under their control; therefore they are suffering from a pathophysiology, an abnormal physiological state, likely caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance as stated in my Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat.
According to Dr. Becker, clinical cases show that the affected dogs are past puppyhood, usually 3 years or older and despite reaching maturity, they haven't learned to settle. However, early recognition of problems is important. Stressed puppies, such as puppy mill dogs or puppies removed too early from their mothers may affect their development causing heightened states of reactivity and arousal.
Does your dog still seem to fit this bill? If so, you may be dealing with a true rare case of hyperactivity. According to Andreas Luescher a way to find out is having your vet take him to a small room and having his physiological responses are recorded.
Afterward, he would be given amphetamines by mouth, allow them to become effective, and he would be taken to a different room. If his physiological state lowers and he appears calmer, then that would be indicative of hyperactivity; however, this test isn't foul proof and a negative test doesn't necessarily mean the dog's physiological state is normal. The best person to ask about your dog's "hyper' behavior is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. These fellows are specialized in behavior and will also evaluate if there's an underlying medical cause (like thyroid issues, dietary triggers, cognitive dysfunction is senior dogs) at the root of canine behavior problems.
If My Dog Isn't Hyperactive, What Is He?
So if as mentioned, many dogs aren't truly hyperactive and hyperactivity is often erroneously overdiagnosed, what are they? Turns out, most dogs are not hyperactive but simply "overactive." Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist and certified applied animal provides several insights on differential diagnosis for "hyperactivity." While obviously the below guidelines are not meant to be used as a substitute for professional hands-on evaluations by a veterinary behaviorist, and therefore aren't a diagnosis, they are helpful to just give a hint that what looks like hyperactivity, may sometimes be something else. Here are some ways they can be differentiated.
These dogs are able to lie down, sleep through the night and can settle, but they're always up for activity. According to Karen Overall, these dogs are the easiest to manage as their needs for motor activity resolve once you increase their needs for interaction and aerobic activities. She further adds that if you notice an improvement after walking your dog at a brisk pace that causes at least 10 to 15 minutes of deep breathing, your dog is likely overactive. For these dogs, you'll need to learn the type and duration of exercise required to see changes coming into effect. These dogs can, therefore, be helped in many ways as long as their owners become proactive or find a suitable way to meet their needs.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
These are hypervigilant dogs who wear themselves out through overreacting to stimuli in their environment. They are prone to getting little or no restorative sleep due to stimuli that continuously arouse them. They are light sleepers that awaken to minimal noises. These dogs appear to be "hyper" but mostly in response to stimuli. When exposed to their 'triggers' they may display panting, shaking, increased heart rate and increased respiratory rates. These dogs are unable to focus and have difficulty learning since their over-reactivity gets in the way with their cognitive functions.
However, when they're calm, like in the comfort of their homes, they can learn. Often, their reactive behaviors spill into aggression. These behaviors may be common in breeds that were bred to react quickly. One distinguishing factor of this condition is that it presents with periodic and recurrent diarrhea. Read here to learn how diarrhea can be caused by stress in dogs. This condition comes also as a diagnosis of “last resort” after ruling out other more targeted sources of anxiety such as noise phobia, separation anxiety or neophobia.
In these dogs, their responses to external stimuli such as sounds and smells are out of context or extreme, happening frequently, intensely or lingering for extensive periods of time. These dogs are easily over threshold and quick to arouse. They'll vocalize, move a lot and cannot focus. Before assuming a dog is hyperreactive, it's important to rule out overactivity due to lack of exercise and mental stimulation. These dogs though unlike the ones affected by generalized anxiety disorder, aren't typically distressed; however, they may eventually develop anxiety. These dogs' overreactive behaviors are known to be reinforced at a neurochemical level.
Attention seeking behavior becomes a pathology when the dog cannot cope or move on when they don't get attention. These dogs tend to get distressed when they don't have attention. They''ll do anything to get attention under the form of barking, whining, howling, pawing, jumping or chewing. Interestingly, Karen Overall claims that the distress in these dogs doesn't completely stop with attention.The source of distress, in this case, is mostly directed towards attention-seeking behavior from the caretaker.
As seen, there are many forms of what may seem "hyperactive" behaviors and it's important to consider various conditions for an accurate diagnosis. If your dog appears to be hyperactive, hyperreactive or affected by a generalized anxiety disorder, please seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist. Several of these conditions may benefit from prescription medications along with behavior modification since they're likely caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance. If your dog is mostly overactive though, read on to see why your dog behaves the way he does and what steps you can take to help him out.
7 Reasons Your Dog Is Overactive
So if your dog is simply overactive, what exactly is going on? There are several explanations and your dog may be dealing with a combination of factors which summed up, lead to those "hyper" behaviors. Dog trainer and owner of Peaceable Paws Pat Miller has a cute name for dogs with excess energy, she calls it "Wild Child Canine Syndrome” So instead of saying your dog is "hyper" most likely the behaviors you are seeing are the result of several factors that can be manageable. Let's take a look at these factors, shall we?
1. In the Eye of the Beholder
Often, dog owners believe their dogs are "hyperactive", when they're often not. For instance, for a senior with hip problems, a cocker spaniel puppy may be too much, yet, in the hands of a person who loves to walk and has plenty of spare time to play, this same pup can blossom into a wonderful companion. A dog's energy levels, therefore, can be perceived as troublesome or manageable depending on who you ask, which brings us to the next important factor which is determining if those 'hyper" behavior may be simply normal behavior related to breed.
2. Breed Disposition
This takes us back to the Dalmatian story mentioned above. Many breeds were meant to be working dogs. Whether they were hunting, digging, herding flocks, guarding livestock, pulling sleds, doing police work or chasing poachers, dog breeds were selectively bred to work for humankind. This can be both a blessing and a curse.
It's sure was a blessing in the past to have a dog that could help humans in various tasks, but unfortunately, today not so much unless you decide to:
- purposely purchase a breed to do what it was originally bred to do—something not feasible unless you own a farm, hunt all day or live in Alaska and need sled transportation OR
- dedicate time in keeping your dog exercised and mentally stimulated. It's a fact that today most dogs are under-exercised both physically and mentally.
And don't just assume that a walk around the block would cut it; many dogs need much more than that! This means that if you purchase a dog that was meant to hunt, herd, guard or do any kind of work, especially coming from working lines, should you leave him unemployed, especially during his juvenile years that corresponds to the times of peak performance, you'll need to deal with boundless energy.
So when considering a dog breed, it's a very good idea researching what the breed was selectively bred for. The American Kennel Club has done some homework for you in classifying certain breeds. In particular, sporting dogs and herding dogs were bred to help out in various tasks, but don't be fooled into thinking that non-sporting dogs are calm; just think that the Dalmatian is among them!
So with any breeds you're considering, carefully evaluate if they match your lifestyle. While it's true that breeders have mellowed things down by breeding dogs with calmer dispositions, consider that they'll always have that lively "spark" that made them the dogs they were meant to be. Also consider that when it comes to genes, as Dr. Patricia McConnell states "Genes are written in pencil".
This means that they can be erased or faded and that even among a breed known to be active, you may stumble upon specimens that are calmer, and among calm breeds, you may stumble on specimens that are overly active because nothing is written in stone (or with a permanent marker) to use McConnell's analogy.
3. Too Much of the Wrong Exercise
Wait, didn't you just say that most of today's active dogs are greatly under-exercised? It sounds obvious to provide outlets for pent-up energy through exercise but there are good ways and bad ways to accomplish this. If you think that taking your dog to the dog park or daycare every single day will help a dog prone to being aroused, think again.
Yes, your dog will fetch, jump, run and go bonkers with other dogs for hours and then when he comes home he'll likely crash to sleep, but day after day, he's likely being overstimulated and allowed to practice crazy, wild play over and over—same goes with overly arousing games. For instance, if your dog gets overly amped up when playing with a flirt pole, you may want to hold off this game, at least for now.
On top of that consider the effects of adrenaline. Dog trainer and owner of All Dogs Gym and Inn, in Manchester, Gail Fisher explains that allowing a dog to chase a ball into the water for 30 minutes or more raises adrenaline levels, something that takes days to subside. When these levels remain high, it makes dogs overactive which makes us think they need more exercise creating a vicious circle.
Another great article that has becomes quite popular among dog trainers is Sara Reushe's article "Too much of a Good Thing, Overexcitement in Exercise". Sara is a dog trainer and owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training, LLC in Rochester, Minnesota. Her article is a must read for dog owners and dog trainers. To sum it up, it she explains how allowing your dog to engage in activities that cause too much arousal will cause constant high levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream. This causes high arousal to become a normal way of life... not good!
4. Conditioned Behavior
Don't be too fast to point the finger at your dog and blaming him "wild." Not all "hyper" behavior is caused by genes. Many times, over-the-top behaviors actually have a history of being reinforced by --you guessed it-- the owners. How can this be possible?
All it takes is taking a look at how reinforcement works. Reinforcement means enforcing behaviors, and behaviors that are reinforced put roots and repeat. If your child throws a fit at the store because he wants candy and you feel embarrassed so you promptly buy him the candy, what do you think will happen next time? You guessed it, the same scene will repeat, and repeat and repeat and soon you'll notice how you and your child have trained each other well.
Through positive reinforcement you have trained your child to throw a fit to get candy and though negative reinforcement your child has trained you to give him candy to stop him from screaming. For more on negative and positive reinforcement read "the quadrants of dog training."
So from a practical standpoint, you may have inadvertently rewarded your hyper behaviors. How? By doing these few mistakes:
- Giving your dog attention when he jumps on you (even negative attention may do to a bored dog who has been alone all day)
- Giving attention when he barks at you
- Feeding him when he's acting hyper
- Putting his leash on when he's going bonkers
- Getting dragged when he pulls on the leash
- Letting him free to play at the dog park after dragging you there
- Letting him out the door when he's scratching at it
- Encouraging rough, out-of-control play
- Letting overactive kids fuel "hyper behaviors" through inappropriate play 9(ie screaming, running, chasing, hitting)
5. Difficult Life Stages
Just as children, dogs go through life stages too. Puppies are naturally "hyper" but luckily they go through frequent wake and sleep cycles so they tend to get tired too. The flight period taking place between the ages of 4 to 8 months, make dogs turn into escape artists as they get the zoomies and try to entice you in playing "catch me if you can," a game you definitively don't want to give into. And here are several reasons why: ''risk of playing the keep away game."
And then after all of this, comes to the biggest challenge "the teenager phase" where your dog has boundless energy and is constantly looking for something to do. During this phase, you'll want to take some steps to prevent dog adolescent problems. Not coincidentally, statistics show that a great number of dogs are surrendered in shelters during this phase. Luckily though, many dogs settle down past social maturity.
6. Social Isolation
I see this issue a lot. Rover is acting out in the home, jumping around, tipping items off the table with his tail and chewing on the rug so he's let out in the yard. Whether the owners are sending the dog out in the yard to punish the dog or to preserve their costly furniture is irrelevant; the end result is the same.
A bored dog who doesn't get to socially interact with his family and isn't ever given outlets for his pent-up energy nor opportunities to learn how to behave in the home. What happens to this dog? He may start barking, pacing and looking for something to do. So then he's let inside again. And of course, since the dog is super happy to be with his family again, he won't be able to contain himself which will lead to . . . you guessed it . . . rowdy behavior again.
Soon the dog becomes what I call "an inside-outside dog" or even worse, a totally outdoors dog that never has an opportunity to learn how to be less rowdy. Too bad though that all it takes is some exercise, enrichment, patience and structured training to get these dogs to be good in the home.
7. Lack of Appropriate Outlets and Enrichment
Whether your dog belongs to a breed that was meant to work through centuries or a dog that was bred to warm up the laps of royal ladies, your dog will enjoy enrichment opportunities in his environment. Let's face it: dogs love to engage in foraging behaviors. Even us humans like to work for our food either indirectly by working for a salary so we can buy foods or directly, by growing or own fruits and veggies.
Fact is, many people enjoy working, whether it's physical work or mental work as it keeps you occupied, stimulates your mind, keeps you in good shape and sometimes even increases your creativity. OK, OK, to those who hate their job, they're right. The wrong type of job can make your life miserable and even make you stressed and sick. To those folks, a job change may be very beneficial.
Just like certain dogs were crafted for certain jobs, in my opinion, we were put on earth to complete certain tasks we were meant to do. So if you were born with a splendid voice you should be a singer, if you grew up dreaming of being a dancer you should dance and if you aced all the math tests, you should be an accountant or a math teacher or anything that floats your boat.
Fact is, many people when they hit retirement get depressed and sick because they feel their life has become meaningless. Instead, then is the time to do all the things you love to do! Paint, travel, dine take a dancing class. OK, now back to dogs.
What type of environmental enrichment can you give a "hyper" pup? Well, there are plenty of ways to keep your dog exercised and mentally stimulated, but we'll see them in the next paragraphs.
7 Ways to Calm Down a "Hyper" Dog
There are several ways to calm down your hyper dog. Some of them require your active participation, others your dog can get the steam off more passively, without much of your intervention. Consider that you won't calm down a hyper pup overnight, it takes time to develop calmer coping skills to arousing situations, so be patient and your consistency will pay off.
We have already seen how in almost all things in life, too much of a good thing is bad and too little can be bad too. So the way in between, is the golden way to go. The biggest secret is pairing training with exercise so your dog can learn to control himself better.
1. Add Environmental Enrichment
These are quiet activities that keep your dog mentally stimulated. Forget the food bowl with "hyper dogs." Instead, feed their food in a bottle, stuff it in layers inside a Kong, hide the kibble around the house or play a game of "sit" and fetch the kibble. Invest in dog puzzles, there are several on the market right now. Use kibble to reward desirable behaviors you observe during the day. These activities keep dogs mentally stimulated which can be quite as tiring as exercise.
2. Make Good Exercise Choices
Believe it or not, the sport of agility may seem like a sport that would encourage arousal, but actually, it's a structured form of exercise as your dog must follow your directions and concentrate on balancing himself, controlling his speed and navigating through obstacles.
Take your dog for long walks, hikes and enroll in him classes. If he already had done classes, keep him further on his toes by enrolling him in advanced ones or special activities. Research what your breed was bred to do. Herding trials, hunting trials or nosework can be fun activities for many dogs. Fetch games are fine, but don't overdo it and to make the exercise even more effective, use Grandma's Law as suggest below.
3. Apply Grandma's Law
Also known as the Premack principle, Grandma's Law can be used to reinforce calm behaviors. The principle is called Grandma's Law because it's based on the fact that low probability behaviors become more likely if they're followed by higher probability behaviors. Just as grandma says: "If you eat your broccoli, you can have your ice cream sundae." So how to apply it to your dog's training and exercise regimen? Here are some ideas:
- Ask your dog to sit before tossing the ball when playing fetch. You can vary the commands you ask to make it more entertaining.
- Ask your dog to sit before opening the door and letting your dog out in the yard
- Ask your dog to sit before putting the food bowl down
- Ask your dog to sit when you attach the leash
- Ask your dog to dog to sit for petting
- Ask your dog to walk on a loose leash before taking any steps forward
4. The Green Light /Red Light Game
What should you do if your dog gets hyper in the midst of preparing his meals or when he sees the leash? Play the "red light, green light game" . I came up with this game to make it crystal clear to hyper dogs coming for board and training that only calm behaviors get rewarded. In simple words, when your dog acts hyper you slow down and even stop doing what you have to do, when he's calm you resume and get faster.
So if you are preparing his meal and he starts spinning in circles, stop preparing his meal, when he stops circling, resume. If when you walk with the bowl towards his feeding spot he jumps up, turn around and take a step back. When he sits, walk and put the bowl down, if he attempts to jump as you are about to put the bowl down, lift it up. When he sits, put it down but be ready to lift it up if he gives signs of getting ready to jump up.
Same goes with pulling on the leash. Use my "sticky feet" method as outlined in this article on the dog's opposition reflex. You'll need to be very attentive to your dog's body language in this game and respond accordingly. This game will teach your dog that his behavior is what makes good things happen or not. Once he gets it, good, calm choices become a no-brainer.
5. Teach to Relax on a Mat
Dogs are often told what not to do, but what about telling them what to do instead? Rewarding "hyper" dogs for being calm is a must. You can take a handful of treats each day, keep them in your treat pouch and deliver them when you "capture" a calm behavior as it unfolds. Another option is training your dog to relax on a mat, for a sort of session of doggy yoga.
Of course, train this after your dog's exercise needs are met. To train this, simply arm yourself with tasty treats, place a mat in front of where you sit often and keep your dog leashed. Reward him every time he sniffs the mat, walks on the mat. If your dog sits or lies down on it, deliver a jackpot of treats. If your dog gets up to solicit you to give treats or engages in other unwanted behaviors ignore.
To make your dog lie down for gradually longer periods of time, increase the time it takes to deliver treats. By delaying treat delivery, you increase the duration of staying on the mat. With time, your dog should start enjoying relaxing on the mat and you can start taking the leash off so he can get their on his own to "auto-relax."
6. Teach "Look at That"
Many dogs get overly aroused by sights such as people, other dogs or animals. A way to provide an alternate behavior is by teaching your dog how to focus on you. Start by training your dog to make eye contact and then teach the Look at That Game was invented by Leslie McDevitt and can be helpful for many scenarios that rev up your dog.
7. Avoid Harsh Methods
Last but not least, behavior modification and training to help a hyper dog must be force-free. Harsh methods will only make problems worse, increasing arousal and stress. If your dog tends to misbehave, use time-outs, or what Victoria Stillwell calls "the time-out method flipped" or the positive interrupter by Emily Larlham to interrupt the behavior, but also make it a point to teach alternate, incompatible behaviors so your dog will be engaging in them more.
You need to go very gradually though and be patient. Ask too much at once or lose your patience, and you'll see displacement behaviors which are the dog's way of telling you he's feeling uneasiness, frustration or uncertainty.
As seen, there are several ways you can calm your dog down. Of course, there are several more. If you are struggling though, please see a dog trainer to help you out. A dog trainer may always refer you to a veterinary behaviorist if he or she deems that the dog may need further, more advanced professional help.
For Further Reading
- How to Stop a Dog From Chasing
Is your dog chasing cars, rabbits, squirrels and all the alike? Learn why your dog is chasing and how to reduce dog chasing and possibly, eliminate it.
- German Shepherd Puppy Bite Inhibition Games
Does your German Shepherd puppy bite a lot? Looking for fun ways to train him to refine his biting skills and learn some inhibition? These games will help, but can virtually work for any type of pup
- Understanding Dog Arousal Problems
Are your dog's arousal levels getting a bit too high? Are your dealing with dog arousal biting, or worse, do you see the first signs of arousal causing aggression. If so, you need to intervene fast!
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.
© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli