You may have heard trainers and behaviourists talk about arousal or over-arousal in dogs. But what is it, and what can you do about it? Animal behaviourist and Tellington TTouch instructor Toni Shelbourne explains.
In very simple terms, arousal is a state of readiness or alertness in body and mind. If you and your dog didn’t experience arousal you just wouldn’t get out of bed! However, when a dog is exposed to a lot of sensory input, adrenaline and cortisol are released. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in small doses, or if your dog is competing in a sport, but too much can push a dog into over- or hyper-arousal, which is counterproductive, and could impair your dog’s ability to listen and learn. Over-arousal can manifest in several ways, for example:
- Pacing, circling, or restlessness.
- Fear responses like reactivity to a dog, person, or environment.
- OTT greetings and play.
- Not being able to calm quickly.
- Physiological reactions like panting, increased heart rate.
What causes over-arousal in dogs?
SOCIAL — a dog may become over-excited in social settings, for example around other dogs or people. It can be common in young, adolescent dogs, but some never seem to grow out of it and can be a real pest to others.
SEXUAL — every species is influenced by the basic need to procreate, and unneutered dogs are no different.
FEAR — many dogs have suffered a frightening experience, resulting in PTSD-type symptoms. They can lunge and bark at others, becoming over-aroused and hyper-vigilant on walks. They feel the need to protect themselves from a perceived threat, and can struggle to settle even once back at home.
PHYSICAL ISSUES — others, who are experiencing a physical condition that results in discomfort, may seem hyper-active, but actually it’s a physical manifestation of the pain. If you suspect your dog is suffering from a condition or injury, the first thing to do is contact your vet for help.
HORMONES — as well as sexual hormones, other hormones play a part in how aroused your dog can get. Dealing with the root cause of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, by not constantly exposing your dog to scary or exciting stimulus, can help reduce these surges and be the first step to helping settle his behaviour.
What can you do to help over-arousal in dogs?
Several types of dogs can succumb to over-arousal: adolescents, working dogs or those who compete in sports, as well as fearful or under-stimulated pets. My ‘go to’ training method for canines needing help to regulate themselves is the Tellington TTouch method (TTouch for short). If your dog finds it hard to sit still, pulls or lunges on the lead, spins, barks, or finds it hard to retain instructions, TTouch can be instrumental in calming both the body and mind.
TTouch works with all the sensory systems, particularly the proprioceptive system, which tells us how to organise our body and how it relates to the space around us; in simple terms how we move and negotiate the environment. Because over-aroused dogs often seem unaware of their size or objects around them, and appear clumsy, TTouch can help them calm down and move in a more appropriate manner. As movement and posture can directly affect behaviour, dogs often start to manage themselves in a more mindful and measured way, and there are many tools to help them.
The beauty of balance
Everything we do in TTouch training aims to bring an animal into physical, mental, and emotional balance. We do this with the aid of tools like body work, equipment, and movement exercises. Because over-aroused dogs often struggle to sit still and can find body contact challenging, starting with movement is often the best option. We can do this by using the confidence course.
As your dog starts to interact with the elements of the TTouch confidence course you may notice moments of improved concentration, body awareness, and cooperation. He will become more mindful in his actions, start to slow down, and be able to pause in a balanced, still stance. His brain and body are starting to come back into a rational thinking state where he can learn and regulate himself.
Setting up a course
This can be done in the garden or house. Use different objects and surfaces that your dog can easily walk over, around, or on. These should be low, have different textures, and be laid out in patterns that encourage him to move in ways he wouldn’t normally. Here are some suggestions of everyday items you can use, which you may have lying around the house and garden:
- Brooms or garden tool handles — don’t take the actual head off as when laid down the height difference it creates requires added awareness as your dog steps over it.
- Old bicycle tyres, hoopla-hoops, rope, or a garden hose curled in loops. Set up a few next to each other in random patterns; you want to see if your dog can walk through without stepping on or tripping over them.
- Flowerpots, buckets, or large filled bottles of water can be set out as weaves, but make a note at what distance your dog can easily bend his body around them. Start wide and then reduce the gap if needed.
- Mats, cardboard, old garden lounger cushions, pillows, tarpaulin, and any other non-slip surfaces — is your dog willing and able to walk over them confidently, slowly, and in balance?
- Garden canes or long lengths of wood — can you create a labyrinth for your dog to negotiate, moving around the bends smoothly and efficiently?
- A wide scaffold plank or a dog car ramp laid flat, for walking along without stepping off.
- Use your imagination and adapt whatever you have lying around; it just needs to be size appropriate, non-slip, and safe.
Tackling the course
Pop your dog on his lead or better still a harness with two points of connection, at the chest and top of the shoulder. You could add in a TTouch Harmony Leash or TTouch Connector to give your dog a sense of more freedom of movement. If you struggle with your dog’s behaviour on-lead, but he can follow your hand movements off -lead with no equipment on him, try this first. You can add the lead as he settles down.
Walk through the elements of the confidence course slowly and pause often for a few seconds in the middle of an element. This could be as you walk through the tyres, on a bend of the weaves or labyrinth, or even with two front feet on one side of a pole and the hind legs on the other. Don’t worry if initially your dog is a little fast, clumsy, or distracted. Stay calm and perhaps use a little food incentive for a short time, placing the treat just a short distance in front of him on the ground using slow hand movements. Don’t vocally cue your dog. This is about bringing awareness to his proprioception, not following obedience cues.
You want your dog to stand in as natural an outline as possible, not looking up at you when you stop, or turning towards you. Try to position yourself up by his head and shoulder. If he’s on-lead, have only a very slight slack in the lead so you can influence his movement. When you want to stop, give a gentle signal, and then soften or melt your connection so your dog comes into a balanced standing position.
At first, he may instantly start to move; gently ask for the pause again, but only for a second or so before allowing him to move on. The longer pauses will come in time as he starts to organise his body better. Try to glide in and out of these transitions smoothly, thinking about and starting to initiate the stops through gentle lead pressure and your body position a few steps before your intended pause. The length spent doing the groundwork exercises will depend on your dog’s fitness and concentration level; 10 to 15 minutes may be ample for a busy dog. Note that this exercise can be mentally, as well as physically, tiring. You are not just activating the physical body here, but influencing the brain too. This means this exercise is perfect for high-energy dogs who can’t normally settle and can become worse if given high-energy exercise.
Once your dog is calmer, you will then be able to introduce the TTouch body work, which will further influence his physical balance and shift him towards the rest and digest side of his nervous system, positively impacting his mental and emotional state and relaxing him further. You may also find a body wrap brings added composure and body awareness, helping him regulate his movement and ability to listen.
Whatever the reason why your dog struggles to control himself in exciting situations, or just can’t settle at home, the TTouch tools can be a great first step towards influencing a calmer demeanour.