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Four Tools to Calm an Overly Excited Dog
Do you have a dog who repeatedly goes through the day reacting to every event (no matter how small) by going from calm to high arousal?
If yes, you have a dog with a light switch. These dogs go from zero to 100 at the slightest provocation. They often reach the point of “I’m so excited (or frustrated, or scared) that I can’t think straight!” Extreme light switch dogs are stuck in the ‘on’ position. They are always at 100 and rarely relax.
This behaviour can express itself in excessive barking, lunging, jumping up on you or your guests, inability to respond to you, inability to disengage from the delivery driver, cat, squirrel, or sound, over-excited about everything.
If you own an adolescent dog, the above behaviours are probably familiar. Due to the structure of the adolescent brain, adolescent dogs are especially prone to light switch responses.
Having a dog who lives in this state is hard on the household (both human and other animals) and it is hard on your dog.
Often dog owners don’t know how to address this struggle, or they ignore it in the hopes that it will go away.
It is important to recognize that behaviours that are practiced only get stronger. As Dr. Tom Mitchell says: “Repetition is the mother of skill”
Dogs get better at what they practice every day. If the behaviour is ignored and allowed to continue, the constant rehearsal is going to grow a dog who will get better and better at over-reacting to any event in their world.
A dog with a dimmer switch:
If you want to help your dog better manage their arousal levels, you can utilize four tools to grow a dimmer switch. These four tools, if practiced daily, will gradually alter your dog’s arousal regulation system so that your dog will become skilled at responding appropriately to events they encounter every day.
When faced with an event or situation that that causes your calm dog to burst into level 80 – 100 high arousal behaviours, ask yourself the following questions:
Credit: Dr. Tom Mitchell “Dimmer Switch Deep Dive-Part 1”
Understanding these tools, will allow you to develop a plan to change your light switch dog to a dog who discovers that there are levels between 0 – 100 that can be accessed when life throws events and challenges their way.
Levellers: Management strategies to reduce the peak of the arousal spikes (ex. close the curtains or apply window film so your dog can’t see out the window). Even a small decrease in arousal is a step in the right direction.
Switch Triggers: Strategies that bring about a decrease in arousal. Intervene to divert your dog from a level 100 reaction to a lower level where they can respond to you. Ex. Figure 8 walking, A to B, Scatter feed, Parking your dog.
Games: Throughout the day practice growing your dog’s dimmer switch through games. With games, you can simulate arousal increases (bring your dog up to a level 30, 50, or 70) and then rehearse arousal decreases (bring them down to a level 60, 40, or 20).
Activities: High arousal dogs often find their world shrinking. If they are too much to manage on a walk, they get less walks. By using movement in a way that taps into middle level arousal, you can teach your dog to lower their energy in less distracting environments and gradually grow more calmness in the exciting environments.
Piper had a variety of light switch struggles when she first came into our home. One of her biggest triggers was people entering the yard.
It has taken three years but I am now starting to see a dog who can stay calmly on the couch when someone comes into the yard.
So what did I do?
Levellers: In a perfect world, I would have put up window film but we have four big windows on two walls making it a less desirable option so I didn’t implement any levelling strategies.
Switch Triggers: This strategy for reducing Piper’s arousal curve was my go-to. I would prepare a stuffed Kongs, or a stuffed beef tracheas and put the in the freezer.
Anywhere from 5 – 15 minutes before the person was scheduled to arrive, I would put Piper in her crate and give her one of the frozen food stuffed items.
She would notice the person, bark less loudly and for a shorter duration or not bark at all, and then go back to the food. Arousal reduced…excellent!!
Watch this strategy in action!
Games: During the day we would play Distraction Mark Treat, Disengagement Pattern, Ask the Question Again, Feed the Spot, Reward Nothingto name a few. These games were designed to grow the concepts of Disengagement and Calmness.
Activities: I didn’t implement this strategy with Piper.
Progress wasn’t linear but I started seeing less and less arousal. There would be blips but gradually the periods of low arousal grew.
When blips occurred and she would rush to the door barking, she would more readily disengage from the person at the door, engage with me, and if needed happily go into her crate.
It is possible to take an easily aroused dog and grow a dimmer switch but you need to take conscious action to help your dog. Without any intervention on your part, the behaviour will only get worse.
Identify the events that trigger your dog’s spike in arousal and prepare for those situations with a plan that will use the four tools of Levellers, Switch Triggers, Games, and Activities to bring about a more suitable and calmer response.
Adapted from a variety of teachings by Dr. Tom Mitchel.
To learn from Dr. Tom Mitchell, check out:
Help! My Dog page on Facebook
“Help! My Dog” podcast:
Enroll in our “Becoming Adolescent” class and learn the games that will grow your dog’s dimmer switch. Check out ourUpcoming Classes for dates and times.
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