How to Deal With an Overly Excitable Dog
Different Types of Excitement
It's important to know the different kinds of excitement your dog experiences, and how to interpret them for yourself. Dogs express both stress and happiness through the same body language with subtle differences. Ears pricked and a steady gaze with his mouth closed signal intense focus. Many times dogs do this while staring at food, and that is probably what you think of first when envisioning this expression on your dog. But dogs will have the same intense gaze at other dogs or animals they interpret as a possible threat. The excitement your dog experiences when he's waiting for you to accidentally drop your sandwich on the floor is that of happy anticipation. The stare he gives another dog is anticipation of another kind. You can help him calm down in both situations by defining what he can expect.
It is very difficult for most dog owners to tell if their dog is excited-stressed or excited-happy. Tail wagging, drooling, whining, and panting are all signs associated with both types. Because it is hard for people to read their dogs with 100% accuracy, I recommend against aversion or negative reinforcement techniques. These methods, while effective when used properly under supervision of an experienced trainer, most often confound a problem behavior when used otherwise. The methods described here use positive reinforcement only. This avoids accidentally complicating an existing anxiety or creating one in your dog.
Your response and actions have an effect on what happens after your dog communicates initial excitement. Will he cross the threshold into an uncontrollable, hyper, crazy canine? It's up to you. When you notice your dog start to focus on an item or animal, you can redirect his focus back to you or away to something else. As with all training, your timing is critical. You must redirect him to something else BEFORE he crosses the threshold and loses control. You'll be teaching himself control using redirection.
This article assumes you've got your dog under some basic household rules and have him walking well on a leash without dragging you around. If you have not made at least some progress in these areas, you will find it more difficult to hold your dog's attention and respect. You can use this method without having done these things, but expect slower progress. See these articles for further reading:
You are probably somewhat aware of your dog's thresholds already. It's just a matter of putting the pieces together. Once you can recognize them reliably, you'll have a much easier time with showing him the proper way to react and what he can expect from you in terms of leadership and guidance. Next, are examples of specific situations.
Squirrels or Other Small Animals
Many breeds have a huge prey drive, desirable in working dogs, but not so much in the family pet. Lunging at squirrels or neighborhood cats during a walk is obnoxious, can be mistaken as aggression by others, and is dangerous to your dog if he gets away (not to mention, the critter he catches).
So here it is: You're walking perfectly fine and your dog sees a squirrel. You should be paying enough attention to your dog to notice when his focus changes to something specific and his movement goes a little rigid in anticipation of a chase. If you keep walking, (assuming you're traveling towards the distraction) you know he'll break and start lunging. That's his threshold, so change direction! Don't worry about looking silly. Before he's able to put any tension on the leash just start running backwards, call your dog's name excitedly, and pull his attention back to the walk. Really, really make yourself interesting. "Oh my gosh! You're such a good dog! Let's go back this way!" You may even have brought some treats on your walk, you can lead him with them if you did. Alternatively, your dog will enjoy a short run in the other direction.
Avoid attempting to walk past a distraction like a squirrel while your dog is pulling on his leash. This will only encourage leash-pulling as it rewards him by moving closer to the object even if it is only temporary. At the first sign of excitement, MOVE AWAY from it!
Two things happen in this situation. The first is it teaches your dog that being excited removes him from the thing he's interested in. You are withholding a reward until it is earned and being a responsible leader, yet it is not a punishment or negative reinforcement. You can move close to a squirrel if he is calm and you can trust he will remain that way. The second thing is that you are reminding him how interesting YOU can be. By changing direction, running, talking excitedly, and feeding treats when he's looking away from the distraction, you show him it's silly to focus on such a little squirrel when there's so much fun to be had with you. You've redirected his attention to yourself.
The same technique can be used if your dog is fearful or anxious around other dogs. If he notices one, do the same thing and happily change direction. He will trust you to keep him safe and learn that seeing another dog is a good thing and not to be feared. As you use this method, you'll see your dog reacting more slowly to each distraction you encounter on walks. Gradually, you'll be able to get closer and closer to a squirrel or dog before you know you must turn around. Your dog's threshold decreases with practice.
Crazy For Food
Mealtime excitement is easily remedied. Treat it the same as with putting on a leash. Fill your dog's bowl at the counter, out of reach. Take it to where you feed him, and stand with it until he's calm. Tell him "yes" for the correct behavior and begin to slowly lower the bowl. If he gets excited and tries to take any food, pick it back up and tell him "try again." Wait for calm, tell him "yes" for the right behavior, and then begin lowering it again.
Your dog should not be allowed to simply devour his bowl of food as soon as it touches the floor. You should release him from waiting patiently once his food is down. Give him permission with an "okay" so he knows he's permitted to take the food without consequence. Teaching him a release communicates that you are a fair leader and he does not have to greedily take things whenever the opportunity arises. You will give him the things he wants when they have been earned.
Indoor Excitement Before Walks
Going on a walk? Your dog knows what it means when you reach for the leash. Then you struggle to make the latch find his collar as he bounce around jumping and whining showing you how much he wants to go out. He might be fine once you get out the door, but getting him to sit still for the leash seems impossible. Teach him that you'll only pick up the leash if he's calm.
With the leash nearby, it helps to tell him a behavior he knows, like "sit." This will give him a correct starting position, but it's acceptable to have him standing or otherwise. Slowly reach for the leash. If you move too quickly, you'll excite him, so take it easy and be still. If he gets up or starts wiggling around too much, you have met his threshold and must go back to start. Put your hands back at your side, say "try again" and stand quietly until he relaxes. When he is calm you can signal his correct response with a "yes" or click if you're using a clicker. Reach again for the leash, keep moving towards it so long as he's calm and pull away when he gets too excited. You are withholding a reward (the walk) every time he acts unacceptably. Putting the leash on is a reward itself because it signals the walk, so don't give it away for bad behavior.
Once he learns to control himself while you pick up the leash, you continue with the same idea to put it on. Bring it towards him slowly to help keep him from getting too excited. Every time he makes a mistake tell him to "try again" and put the leash down and start over. Dogs don't want to repeat things, they want results! So having to start over, wait again for you to pick up the leash is motivation enough to stay still. When he's calm, signal that is the correct behavior with "yes" and start the process again. He just doesn't know how long he's supposed to sit still yet.
Do this exercise for only a couple minutes, then come back to it in about 20 minutes or so. He probably won't be able to stay completely still in only one or two sessions, so give him a chance to take a break. Dogs get frustrated like we do. He'll sit still for longer and longer each time, that's assuming you stay consistent and show some self control. Don't give in. You are teaching him a concept that translates to many situations. Calm behavior can get him what he wants, but you have to be willing to withhold rewards if he starts to get excited. Giving in results in backward progress.
Your dog jumps on you for attention and affection. You might try to push him down or hold your arms up trying to protect yourself, but what you're actually doing is rewarding him. Don't touch him when he jumps on you, and instruct guests to do the same. Don't look at him, talk to, or touch him. In fact, turn around with your back facing him, arms crossed, and head turned up. If he comes around to your front and jumps, turn again.
A dog that jumps may have a very delicate threshold. It might only take you looking at him to trigger it. Be mindful of your actions and try to take it slow in greeting him or giving him other attention. Know what triggers his jumping and shun him every time he acts this way. When he's quiet or stays on the floor for more than two seconds, tell him "yes" and look at him. If it won't cause him to jump again, you can pet him, but the second he starts up tell him to "try again" and turn away. Simply don't give him the reward of touch or attention when he acts poorly. As with the other examples, your dog's ability and willpower to stay on the floor builds with practice.
These are only a handful of examples, but from them you should be able to grasp the method. The technique is comprised mostly of waiting for the right behavior while your dog works out what you're looking for. As soon as he does it right, you signal "yes" for being correct and progress is made. Avoid doing things you know excites your dog. If his excitement is directed towards you ignore him, turn away and remove yourself from him if he gets out of control. Return your attention to him only when he is behaving the way you want. If his excitement is directed towards something else, remove that or move away from it, bringing it back when he is calm.
This article is not meant to address overall anxiety or aggression issues you may be experiencing with your dog. If this is what you're looking for, please work with a professional dog trainer in person. No amount of reading and study can make up for their practical experience, timing, and ability to react appropriately.
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.