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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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Derek

Wednesday 21st of May 2014

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 ?

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 21st of May 2014

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.

Wolf Feldmuller

Wednesday 17th of October 2012

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

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 18th of October 2012

Some dogs make coughing noises when they are excited. Nothing to worry about.

Tiffany

Saturday 20th of August 2011

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!

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 21st of August 2011

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?

Lindsay Stordahl

Saturday 24th of July 2010

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!

Lori

Saturday 24th of July 2010

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.