My dog is too excited to listen: Tips for helping "over the top" dogs
Do you have a dog who listens and responds to you at home but when you get to the park, they turn into a leaping, spinning, barking beast?
There may be any number of underlying causes for this change in behaviour (genetics, health, diet, exercise, enrichment, training) but if we focus on what we observe in the dog’s change of behaviour then the core issue is a sudden change in the dog’s arousal or stimulation levels. They change from being calm to over stimulated; from low arousal levels to high.
In human athletes, we acknowledge the impact of stimulation or arousal levels on performance. For instance, we don’t ask our footballers to go from watching TV (low arousal) to running onto the field to play a grand final (higher arousal). Instead, the team’s trainers gradually lift the players’ arousal levels to the optimum level for quick and accurate performance of known skills.
The process of “getting in the zone” for optimum performance is supported by a model proposed by Yerkes and Dodson in the early 20th century and this model may help you manage your dog’s change of behaviour in different scenarios.
The Yerkes-Dodson principle states that when a task is easy, the animal is able to perform it quickly and accurately. Likewise, difficult tasks are performed less reliably.
When we add levels of stimulation (stress, arousal, excitement) to the mix, then performance changes. For simple tasks, the optimum performance occurs when higher levels of stimulation are applied. However, for difficult tasks, low to moderate levels of stimulation yield the most favourable performance. When the dog becomes over stimulated, then performance of difficult tasks declines.
What is an easy “task” for a dog?
The difficulty of a “task” for a dog depends on a number of factors including:
- How well the dog knows the “task” – For example, an 8 week old puppy who has just arrived at your house will not yet know that the word “Sit” accompanied by a hand signal means put your bottom on the ground and stay there until released. For a baby puppy, the “sit” task is very difficult because they haven’t had many repetitions of performing it. On the other hand, a five year old dog who started learning “Sit” when they were a baby puppy will find this task “easy” as they have practised thousands of successful repetitions of it.
- How the dog feels about performing the “task” – If the dog has positive feelings about a behaviour like sitting on cue, then considering all other factors, this task would be considered “easy”. On the other hand, if negative feelings are associated with a behaviour then the dog will find performing the behaviour “difficult” and will likely avoid doing it. With the behaviour of sitting, negative feelings may be created by the way it was trained or because the dog has sore hips and it hurts them to sit.
- Where you ask the dog to perform the “task” – The environment in which we ask them to perform affects the difficulty of the task in the dog’s eyes. In places with a lot of competing things for the dog to see and smell, the difficulty of the task increases because their attention is split. Also, the motivation to perform the task for your food rewards may be lower than what the environment offers them. Aside from things to see and do in the environment, if the dog does not feel completely safe or confident in a place, then the difficulty of performing a behaviour in this place increases.
So, returning to the Yerkes-Dodson model that states that dogs can perform easy tasks reliably and difficult ones, less so, when the dog:
- is habituated to performing a behaviour (i.e. sit),
- has positive associations with performing the behaviour, and
- is asked to perform the behaviour in an appropriate environment
they will be successful.
How to get my dog “in the zone” for learning?
The Yerkes-Dodson model states that for optimum performance of difficult tasks, the animal should be moderately stimulated. So how do we get a dog that is over the top into the “zone” for performing tasks reliably outside the house.
1. Skills training
As discussed above, when the dog has many, many successful repetitions of performing a task, the task becomes easier. It can be performed nearly without thought regardless of the arousal level. As an example, if you are really stressed, you can still remember the mechanics of how to drive the car – you may not be able to make good executive decisions when driving but you know how to start the car, steer, change gears, accelerate and brake. Likewise, our dogs can learn to perform tasks “automatically” even if they are highly excited.
2. Teaching the dog to go from “revved up” to “settled”
A foundation skill to teach puppies is how to regulate their own arousal levels. An excellent game to play is “rev up / settle down”, so the dog goes from high levels of stimulation to low levels in a short space of time.
Teaching our dogs to “settle” on a mat or bed is an incredibly useful skill to teach from a young age. Many people teach the dog to get on their mat but fail to teach the dog to “settle” – which is different to simply staying on the mat. Teaching “settle” is about changing the dog’s arousal levels while on the mat.
3. Strategic use of food
There are many ways to use food to help lower our dog’s arousal levels including treat scatters, slow feeding, and pattern games. Please speak to your Teamwork trainer for details of these “games” and which ones are appropriate for you and your dog.
When using food to manage a dog’s level of stimulation, our goal is to change the dog’s physical state (i.e. arousal level) NOT to necessarily reward a behaviour.
4. Strategic exposure to places and things
For dogs that get overly excited when they see, hear or smell a specific thing i.e. cars, other dogs, cats, skateboards, then in combination with the above steps, we can gradually expose the dog to their triggers. In these instances, we can reward the dog’s good choices to remain under threshold and respond to our cues to perform behaviours.
For dogs that get overly excited just walking out the front door, then this is where you start working. When you have a calm dog at the front door, then open the door and see if you still have a calm dog.
A great way of exposing the dog to places and things without them getting excited is to practise settling and food games in the car. For example, for dogs who get excited around other dogs, drive to the dog park and work on calm behaviours in the car for ten minutes and then go home or find a quiet place for a walk.
Reduce the difficulty of behaviours you ask the dog to perform by:
- Practising many successful repetitions of the behaviour
- Ensuring the dog’s feelings about performing the behaviour are positive
- Choosing the place you ask the dog to perform wisely
Manage the dog’s stimulation levels by:
- Teaching the dog to “settle” and change their arousal levels
- Using food and games strategically
- Exposing the dog to different environments and triggers
Teamwork Dogs offers puppy school at Taigum and Caboolture for dogs aged 10 weeks to 8 months. We also offer an eight week Foundation course for adolescent and adult dogs at Taigum. In all our courses, our experienced trainers can give you advice on how to manage your dog’s levels of stimulation when out and about, so your dog can always show you how brilliant they are.
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation.
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