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How to calm an excited dog

My mutt Ace automatically becomes hyper in certain situations regardless of how much exercise he’s had. And hyper is an understatement.

A lack of exercise is the cause behind most dog behavior problems, but not all. What I’m referring to in this post is a dog’s behavior issues related to his state of mind.

Ace’s “problem areas” include agility and retrieving. Ace is obsessive and extremely excited during both these activities to the point where I become frustrated because I can’t control my dog. Increasing his exercise is not the answer.

I can take Ace out on an 8-mile bike ride before we go to agility and he will be nice and tired. But as soon as we step onto the course, he becomes a different dog as he enters an excited state of mind. This is why exercise alone through my dog running business does not automatically calm a dog down. We practice obedience in the same room on a different night and even if Ace has had no exercise, he is calm and responsive.

It is the atmosphere and the energy and excitement from the other dogs, handlers, trainers and myself that affect Ace’s behavior. That, and he’s been conditioned and encouraged to act excited during agility for the last two and a half years. Instead of growing as a team, Ace and I are now worse than we were on our first night of agility!

Dog happiness vs. dog excitement

It’s so easy for people to mistake obsessive behavior in dogs for happiness. Don’t get me wrong, my dog loves agility and he loves chasing a ball. But a border collie that obsessively herds the neighbor dog along the fence is not happy – she has issues. And a dog that will chase a Frisbee nonstop all day every day does not “love” her toy, she is obsessive.

Ace shows many signs of unhealthy excitement during agility such as mad barking, fixating on my hands to the point of nipping, staring without blinking, trembling, foaming at the mouth and being unable to follow basic commands. Here is a video and post about my dog barking during agility a year ago. I’ve made no progress addressing this issue.

Ace has also had an obvious tennis ball obsession for as long as I’ve known him. If given the option, Ace will never stop chasing a ball as long as someone will keep throwing it. It would take literal exhaustion or a heart attack to get him to quit on his own. Of course, I always intervene before it reaches that point.

Over-scheduled dogs

I was one of those over-scheduled teenagers – band, rugby, swimming, girl scouts, piano lessons, an after school job and pit orchestra. Thanks, Mom and Dad! I still keep my schedule full, and I have a hard time relaxing. It’s no wonder I have weekly planned activities for my dog as well – agility, obedience, playdates.

In reality it is not necessary to pack our active dogs’ schedules with agility, flyball, dog playdates, dog daycare, trips to the dog park and nonstop games of fetch. If anything, these kinds of activities get our dogs even more wound up when what they really need is to learn to sit still, appreciate downtime and feel comfortable when left alone.

Dogs are not children. Dogs don’t need to have activities planned for them every moment of the day. It’s actually pretty stressful for dogs, especially when their owners are frantically running from one thing to the next. I’m pretty sure kids could use a few less activities as well.

Reward a dog’s calm behavior

So how can a dog owner condition her dog to be calmer? I’d certainly like to hear your ideas. Here are mine:

Dog owners who have dogs that easily slip into an excited state of mind should of course make sure the dog is getting enough exercise, training and socialization. An hour run each day is not unreasonable if you have a high-energy dog such as a springer spaniel.

But assuming the dog gets a reasonable amount of exercise and consistent rules, a big part of the equation is to reward the dog for being calm and to give him time every day to practice being calm in different situations. That means the owner must seek out these “problem” environments rather than avoid them.

If your dog is extremely anxious at the vet, then you should visit the vet lobby twice a week.

Break the conditioning process into small, achievable steps.

If your dog is out of control with excitement when you get to the dog park, then visit the dog park every day while conditioning your dog that he gets rewarded when he is calm. He can’t get out of the car until he’s lying down and quiet for 30 seconds. He can’t enter the park until he sits and stays without whining or barking for 10 seconds, etc.

In situations where the dog’s anxiety is so intense that he will not calm down, try an e-collar on a low setting and then reward him the instant he is calmer.

One goal of mine is to know that I can take my dog anywhere and trust that he has a reliable down-stay for up to 15 minutes. My dog has learned that he can get away with not listening to me in certain situations such as when someone comes to the door or when we meet a new dog while out and about.

Getting a dog to be calm in any situation will not happen right away, but in steps.

Ace is so excited the second we step onto the agility course that I now recognize I have to first practice entering the course while Ace is calm. If he is not calm before we start our run-through, there’s no way he’s going to calm down during it. This means I will have to change my mindset as well. I can’t rush through the course as many trainers suggest we do. I can’t shower Ace with treats or use an excited voice or sprint ahead. All of these actions encourage the opposite of what I want to accomplish.

If I can’t be calm, there’s no way my dog can be calm.

Like everything with this mutt, it’s a work in progress.

What ideas do you have for calming a dog from an excited state of mind?

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