Overexcitement Behaviors

Overexcitement or over-arousal behaviors are shown when the dog feels frustration or an excess of excitement and are ways to relieve that built up emotional/energetic tension - essentially a mechanism to release the energy. A common example of these that is pretty cute is running around excitedly often referred to as “zoomies”. Other common examples are barking, mouthing, jumping, nipping, taking treats roughly, fixation, or the intense tugging you see in tug-of-war. If these behaviors serve their function of releasing pent up energy without harming anyone or escalating their energy and excitement further, they are seen as normal and even beneficial enrichment for the dog. However, if dogs are not taught to calm down after their excitement “switch” is on full speed, these behaviors escalate further and further and can be a nuisance or at worst, harmful to their human or dog companions.

 

The good news is that a lot of dogs show these behaviors, and they are very manageable and modifiable. Before starting the plan, it is important to observe and assess your dog’s main triggers - Do they only show these arousal behaviors in the presence of a certain toy? In the presence of other dogs? During rough or certain types of play? When do they show high-arousal but are successful at calming down before it becomes harmful or inconvenient? Are there things that help them calm down like calm petting, a soothing voice, or a chew toy/puzzle toy? Once you know the answers to these questions, you can get started with your training plan. Usually the best route to helping dogs develop an “off switch” is 3-fold: exercise, management, and training.​

  1. Exercise: Over-arousal behaviors occur a lot more frequently in dogs who have more energy, so it is important that their mental and physical needs are met, especially when they are around their biggest triggers. Giving a highly intelligent or highly athletic dog enough enrichment often solves over-arousal problems by itself. Off-leash physical exercise is important as well as mental exercise like training and puzzle toys, but make sure to tailor your exercise and enrichment plan to fit your dog’s preferences - choose things you know your dog seems happy doing and does not cause stress (watch for these stress signals to know if an activity may be causing more harm than good). For example, if your dog does not enjoy the presence of other dogs, do not make their main form of enrichment trips to the dog park. Training exercises and food puzzles are great options for mental exercise, which is often the forgotten side of enrichment plans. The links to the side have some ideas for both physical and mental enrichment activities: 

  2. Management: When the dog begins to show this behavior or when he is around his biggest triggers, make sure there is an effective and safe way to handle the dog. Keeping a leash clipped to the dog’s harness/collar during play may be beneficial so that you can pick it up and lead the dog away from the trigger or to a calm space. Having pre-designated space to enclose the dog in with a soothing form of enrichment like a Kong, chew, or snuffle mat is very helpful. That space can be a separate room, a bed or mat, a crate, or your car when out and about. Make sure to have decompressing items (most commonly food puzzles) readily available - you can freeze some stuffed ones ahead of time or have others prepared in a closet. If using a crate or mat, be sure to make it a positive space first with crate or station training. 

  3. Training: When this behavior is happening, we want to be able to tell the dog to do something else that is incompatible with the problem behavior. This will not only help your dog practice calming down, but it will also give you the opportunity to give them one of the decompressing items that help them calm down. For example, if a dog is laying on a mat or sitting, they can't also be jumping and mouthing, and you can walk over to the closet to get them a food puzzle. In order to be able to ask them to do these things while the behavior is occurring and expect him to respond, we have to teach them ahead of time so he already has the cues and can expect reinforcement for stopping fun play time and doing this other, calmer behavior. You can use the mat training and crate training links above to help get one of these behaviors on cue during relaxed times. Then, we will start practicing this cue when your dog gets just a little excited, but not ex cited to the point of problem behaviors. The more the dog practices these interruptions and calming down from an excited state, the better they will get at regulating their own excitement and the easier it will be to do when they are over-aroused to the point of problem behaviors. You will also see the dog begin to offer these behaviors on their own to calm themselves down because excitement can feel a lot like stress, so self-soothing techniques become self-reinforcing for him. There are several on-off switch games that can get your dog practicing this and get those positive, calm vibes flowing. One example can be found here.

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