I learned about overarousal in dogs the hard way. I hadn’t been working in a shelter very long when a large strong dog came in as a stray. He was young and pretty friendly overall, but he had a tendency to escalate quickly. He was stressed in the shelter environment, and he showed that by humping the staff. Humping is often thought of as a sexual behavior, but in many cases, it is a stress behavior. I didn’t truly understand this at the time. I finished a short training session with this dog, working on alternate behaviors to humping people. I put him back in his kennel, turned to leave, and this frustrated, overly aroused dog sunk his teeth in to my upper arm, leaving two punctures. I learned that day that what can seem “high energy” or “untrained” is often really frustration and overarousal. And being on the receiving end of it can actually be dangerous!
Behavior professionals use the term “overarousal” to describe a heightened state in which a dog may exhibit a range of behaviors characterized by a high energy level the dog seems unable to control. Overarousal in dogs is an interesting topic to think about and work with, because it includes behaviors that can sometimes verge into aggression. For instance, a dog who is overly aroused may jump repeatedly on someone, bark excessively, and use their mouth with moderate pressure. You may see any of these behaviors in other contexts, such as when a puppy jumps on a person to get attention. But when an adolescent or adult dog responds to their environment with these behaviors, there is a safety component that needs to be addressed.
What does overarousal look like? A dog who struggles with this issue may be labeled “excited” or “hyperactive.” Usually, you’ll see that it is easy for these dogs to go from 0-10 very quickly. Stimuli in the environment can easily cause pacing, panting, barking, jumping, humping, leash biting, or mouthing. These dogs may appear almost “frantic.” They can also appear to be playing, but too roughly. Overarousal often happens during play, either with other dogs or when engaging with people. A dog may suddenly jump repeatedly for a toy and mouth your arms while they do. What seems like friendly play between two dogs may suddenly get faster, with more vocalizations and harder “play bites.” If you’ve ever seen a doggie play session escalate to a dog fight, you’ve witnessed overarousal.
Overarousal is the sister of aggression. It is very easy for overarousal to tip into something more. For this reason, there is a safety concern if your pup has a tendency to be a little extra. Playful mouthing can quickly turn into hard biting if a dog has trouble regulating themselves. Many people want to absolve their dog of the “aggressive” label, but overarousal can be placed on a “spectrum” of aggression. These terms should be used to communicate, not to become scarlet letters for dogs.
What causes overarousal? If your dog is a breed that is often referred to as “high drive,” you may see a higher arousal level from them. That’s because the breed is genetically inclined to do a job that requires intensity, speed, or quick responses to external stimuli. When channeled, these high drive breeds are amazing at their work. But some of these breeds may struggle in everyday situations if they haven’t been taught coping skills to control that drive, or the outlets for their drive are inappropriate.
Any dog can show “overly aroused” behaviors, and breed is only one piece of the equation. Exposure to too much stimulation, for instance, can also cause overarousal. Behavior professionals see this often in dogs who play repetitive, high energy games like fetch, or are exposed to very busy households with no down time. The best way to relax is to practice relaxation, and we often have to carve out time for our dogs to do this. If we don’t, this overstimulation may lead to overarousal.
Adolescent dogs tend towards overarousal naturally. Keep in mind that, just like human teenagers, dog teenagers (between the ages of 6 months-3 years) need a lot of help regulating their behavior. Their brains are not fully developed yet, and they don’t have the self-control of adults. When I see a ten month old dog jumping and mouthing their owner to get a toy, I’m not surprised. Teenagers!
What do we do about overarousal? Here’s some key areas to look at if you notice this tendency in your pup:
Exercise: Let’s start with the elephant in the room. This is often the go-to for dog guardians struggling with an overly aroused pup, and this makes total sense. If it seems like a dog has too much energy, the natural solution is more exercise, right? Well, no. Dogs need exercise that is appropriate for their age, breed, and energy level, and without it, they will develop behavior problems. But lots of high-intensity exercise will help your dog get stronger, need more exercise overall, and is not a good way to practice calm. Think of long games of fetch or running beside a bike – these are high-intensity ways to make a high-intensity dog higher. But it doesn’t mean these activities are taboo. It just means they need to be coupled with other forms of activity that help your dog practice being self-regulated. One suggestion is a long walk in nature. You can also bring your dog down from a high-energy game like fetch by having them do some scent work in the form of treats scattered on the ground.
Sleep: In that same vein, quality sleep is very important for our dogs. What looks like a “hyper” dog can often be a very tired dog. If your dog begins to escalate their behavior, stop and consider how much sleep they’ve had that day – and don’t forget to assess the quality. Did they take a quick nap while the household moved around them? Or did they actually get good sleep in a relatively quiet environment? If it’s 9:00 at night and they’re swinging from the chandeliers, consider escorting them to their quiet sleeping space. They may really need to sleep.
Activities: Tailor the activities for your wild pup so that they are short, sweet, and easy. Overarousal often happens if a dog is frustrated, so choose things for them to do that don’t cause frustration. Use enrichment toys that aren’t hard to open or dissect, making reinforcement easily attainable. Keep training sessions short and make it easy for your dog to have success. Opt for activities that encourage sniffing, licking, and foraging.
Self-protection: Let’s get practical here. If you have a dog who is jumping on you, biting you, and barking at you because they are frustrated, you have to keep yourself safe. This is where defensive handling skills will be useful. This means knowing how to handle your dog in a way that de-escalates the situation and keeps them from going too far with some of these pesky behaviors (ripped clothing and bites that cause bruising – no thank you!). In some cases, just calmly ignoring a behavior can defuse a situation. If your dog is jumping on you, simply walk away. If your dog is leashed, drawing the leash away from your body to keep your dog off of you can be helpful. Guiding your dog calmly to another area for a short breather is an option, as is putting something between you and your dog to deflect their body briefly. A general rule to follow is that adding lots of restraint will not help. If you are cut off in traffic for the third time and are frustrated, do you want a hug? Probably not.
Check with your vet: Physical and behavioral health are linked. Check with your vet to ensure your dog is healthy, and to see if they have any other recommendations from a health standpoint.
I recently made a plan for my two year old teen dog who was being a wild lady and shared it on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CkqvfERN3r0/ I also have several amazing clients working through plans to help their overly aroused pups dial it down. You and your wild child are not alone!