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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26 thoughts on “How to calm an excited dog”

  1. Tip #1: get a low energy dog!

    just kidding, though having a low energy dog does help. We reward calm behavior by randomly going up to Biggie and petting and praising (or giving treats) when he is just lying there and we’re doing something else. Eventually (hopefully) they associate lying there calmly with reward.

    Teaching the down stay and even just a sit for anything they want, is also good.

  2. Mia my Amstaf sweetypie has issues with dog aggression, other dogs (and nearly all female dogs) are frequently aggressive with her and she becomes nervous and squeals whenever she passes another dog or hears a dog, She is normally ok around calm male dogs but is difficult when encountering female dogs, she is extremely affectionate with people however.
    I would like her to be happy in doggy situations.

  3. I have a couple of suggestions and have used them myself with Stewie, my Jack Russell Terrier. The first is the book (there is also a DVD) Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt. This book is worth every penny!! It works on control behaviors, and being calm around whatever the dogs “triggers” are, whether they are other dogs, people, agility or whatnot.
    The other is a DVD, In Focus by Deb Jones. She shows a lot of coping behaviors, and attention games.

    Both are good purchases. They have helped me a lot, and I only wish Control Unleashed had been written before I got Stewie as a pup, I would have done a lot of things differently.

    Good luck!

  4. I think densitization to the exciting stimulus – which is what you’re suggesting – is the best solution.

    We were just talking about this yesterday, except here the “excitement” was horses. There are horses near our favorite dog park (horse trails, stables, etc.). If you go in the afternoons, you’ll often encounter the horses. There are some dogs who become obsessive about the horses – barking, chasing, etc.

    I normally take Lady to the park in the morning, but even when we’ve gone later in the day, she has never shown any particular interest when the horses are around me. Maybe a little sniffing, if that.

    Yesterday, my husband and I were both at the park with her when the horses arrived. In was only then that I learned from my husband – who would typically go with Lady in the afternoon – that Lady *used* to growl and stare at the horses. But he immediately decided this was not ok. He would make her sit there, not too far away from the horses (though obviously separated by a little distance and the fence), correcting negative behavior and praising her for sitting calmly. Apparently, whenever he saw horses, he deliberately took her nearby to sit calmly and be praised. By the time I first saw horses with her, she already got the message that she was to be calm near horses or ignore them.

    Whenever I think about this technique, I remember the episode of Dog Whisperer where Ceasar Millan taught the dog not to be aggressive with another pet (I believe it was a rabbit). Eventually, the dog let Ceasar pet him WITH the rabbit!

    Desensitizing to agility has got to be much harder, because there are so many people and dogs around. I wonder if the gradual build-up should come not just from stages (wait in car, calm in parking lot, etc.) but also from practicing agility with fewer people/dogs around. Can you go when there is just you and one or two other teams working? I can see how the hurdle between calm & watching from the outside to calm & participating on the inside will be a huge barrier to jump at any stage of the game.

  5. I usually take a tranquilizer.

    Oh, you mean for the dog.

    Mine have low excitability factors, but I will keep these in mind if I get a different breed.

  6. Amanda Steiner

    Thanks for the recommendations Nancy, I am definitely going to check out the book. One thing I noticed after my dog and I did our first agility class was that it was a lot of excited yelling, sprinting, and treats. My first thought was that this was the exact opposite of what I had been trying to teach my dog for the past year! My dog has his own set of excitable issues, territorial dogs in fences, whining when we are in an excitable place or whenever he is unsure. But we will work on them just like you said; in stages! And, I am going to give acupuncture a try with him.

  7. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha! Biggie, that’s the best tip I’ve heard. And I know you are serious, too! If only people would choose dogs based on personality and energy levels rather than looks …

    HarpSkunk, that would be a good example of something you need to work on in small steps. You may want to check out my post about getting a dog to be calm around bikes. It’s a similar concept with getting a dog to be calm around other dogs.

    Thanks for the advice, Nancy. Really appreciate it! I’ve been meaning to check out Control Unleashed for a long time now.

    Thank you Shay. Very interesting about Lady. I’m glad she is now calm around horses. I do remember that episode! I think there was also a guinea pig! Ha! I do plan on practicing agility when it’s just me and my dog and maybe one other person. I think that is absolutely necessary.

  8. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha! Jan, I think I could use a tranquilizer as well!

    Amanda, I’m glad we are on the same page about agility.

    Can’t wait to hear how the acupuncture goes.

  9. @Nancy, thanks for the book and DVD recommendations. I added them to my Amazon wishlist.

    As for my dogs, for the past few years Linus has been getting excited and barking at the neighborhood dogs. We’ve talked to our trainer and she recommended we try and slowly desensitize him to the dogs in our neighborhood by first keeping a good distance from the other dogs and reward and praise when he’s calm. Then do the same thing except get a little closer to the neighborhood dogs until we can gradually walk nearby all the dogs walking through our neighborhood.

    Lucky for me I know most of the neighbors and they work with me and Linus on getting him to be calm when walking by their dogs.

    It seems to be working and Linus has gotten to the point where he will calmly (although cautiously) walk nearby some of the dogs without barking or pulling on his leash.

  10. Lindsay Stordahl

    Sounds like you are doing the right things with Linus. It does help when you have understanding neighbors! It’s good practice for their dogs as well.

    Ha! Apryl, you picked the best dog ever!

  11. I really rely on the fact that my dogs read my emotions and body language. I firmly believe that my emotions “radiate” down the leash to my dogs. If they are getting to wild I put my hand on their heads so the heel of my hand is resting on their muzzle and very calmly say “settle”, it calms them right down. If they are far away from me I get their attention and point at them, that also works for them. I make sure to never be frustrated, anxious, or excited when I give them the settle command.

  12. Lindsay Stordahl

    Sounds like that works really well. Thanks for the idea. I know sometimes I need to make sure not to act frustrated.

  13. Lindsay Stordahl

    My parents’ dogs are calm until my dad comes home because he makes such a big deal about seeing the dogs. They cry and squeal and jump and run around with shoes in their mouths when he opens the door. He thinks they do it because they like him best.

  14. Another thing I forgot to mention, T Touch. Has anyone ever tried this? It’s like a doggy massage focused on their T zone, hence the name. If not look it up on the internet it works well and can be done almost anywhere.

  15. I actually play flyball with my very excitable Aussie. With flyball excitablity gets very dangerous, very quickly because you’ve got 7 other dogs in the ring and the dogs have to be able to deal with an excited dog running right at them. I tried the usual I-need-to-be-calm stuff, the problem I had with it is that it relies on me being emotionless even though I’m excited to get in the ring. It started sucking the fun out of flyball for me.

    I finally started teaching my dog how to control her excitement when she saw I was excited. I started out by sitting in a chair at home and having her wait across the room. Then I would call her to me all excited like I hadn’t seen her in years. If she jumped on me, it all stopped. I would wait until she sat and then reward her in a calmer manner. Eventually she got the point that I would maintain my excitement if she came and sat in front of me. I started moving this idea into new environments and requiring her to listen to what command I gave her (rather than a default sit) if she wanted me to stay excited. As soon as she didn’t listen, excitement stopped. When she did listen I’d give her a little excitement and reward. She learned that the best result came when she did exactly what she’s suppose to. She got to be excited with me, and I had control over her.

    As I’m sure you’re aware, this didn’t fix things over night. But it allowed us to both be excited in the ring and still be safe. She’s no longer nipping at me or other dogs, she stays by my side even though it seems she’s lost her mind. Basically she’s learned to control herself even if she’s excited.

    So that’s what helped me. I’ve still got a terrible barker in the ring, but it’s much more acceptable in flyball so I don’t know if this will help you there.

  16. Lindsay Stordahl

    I appreciate that advice and will give that a try. My dog does not have a reliable sit-stay even in general “exciting” situations like when a dog comes running up to us at a park or something. So I am going to try your idea. If it doesn’t help us out in agility, it will still help us out with general obedience. Thanks! Keep up the good work with your Aussie!

  17. I completely understand what you are going through with your excited dog. I adopted a hound mix a few months ago. I still have a 15 year old Lab at home who is as calm and submissive as they come. Getting this new excitable dog was a shock. The most important thing for me is consistency. She loves to swim, and quickly learned the car’s path to the lake where we would go each day over the summer. First it was a little whining, then it was a lot of whining when we got about half way there, then it was, whining, yelping, and guttural howls, then it was all of those with some barking for good measure. I finally wised up and decided to turn the car around and go back home when she started her litany of excited noise making. It was very irritating to have to turn around, drive home, and then wait until she was laying down in a calm manner before I would try driving to the lake again. It takes a lot of patience and consistency to extinguish unwanted behavior. It seems like once I get one problem solved, another one crops up. Such is the life with dogs!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks for your comment. I do a lot of things like that with Ace but I do need to be more consistent with him. When he gets excited and barks or whines, it’s usually when we are rushed or when a friend is along and then it’s unreasonable to turn the car around. What did you do when you had other people in the car?

  18. We got a 5 year old Labrador male who is quite normal.When we sometimes leave him at a kennel to do some shopping he gets all exited when we pick him up as if he has not seen us for years.
    He jumps up and down and makes funny noises,sounds a little bit like coughing,sort of.picks up anything he can see and runs around with it and calms down.After that he is the normal self till the next visit.
    The kennel owners told us that he might have kennel cough.He gets his yearly injections for everything and he only does o when picked up.Rang the vet and was assured that he did not have kennel cough.How can I explain that to the dog kennel?
    Thanks or your help

  19. We have two rescues, Poppy is great and laid back. George is an older dog who was very stressed being in the car when we bought him home. Someone said give him something to take his mind off the travel, we did. Now he is the opposite to being stressed – now he is extremely excited. He watches us get ready to go out, thinking he is going in the car every time. In the car he now whines differently, not stressed at all !!
    Now where do we go with his training ?

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Hi Derek. So, do you mean you are looking for ways to get him to be calm in the car? My dog tends to get excited for car rides, too, so I hear ya.

      How are his obedience skills overall? I like to teach dogs to lie down and stay on the back seat of the car.

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