Most of us have seen or experienced an excited dog. “It’s ok, my dog is friendly” or “they just want to say hi” is something we have either said or heard as one dog barrells into another dog.
Consider this situation in the human equivalent. You are on a walk and another human spots you from 100 metres away. They start staring at you and and then start running. When they reach you they leap and grab you in a hug, not letting go despite your protests.
Sure, dogs and humans are different species with different array of communication techniques and body language. But, if we can agree that the human example above is unhealthy, then we can start to understand that depending on the intensity of the excited dog situation, then this can also be unhealthy and also unsafe.
How can my excited dog be unsafe?
Arousal lowers the threshold to aggression. This is a term that is in the minds of many dog trainers when considering an excited dog. The more excited a dog is, the more chance that the excitement can become an aggressive incident. So, if there are two excited dogs meeting, there is a risk that this can tip over to a fight.
Also, in the situation above of an excited dog barrelling into another dog, this can be interpreted as either rude, or aggressive by the receiving dog. Again, this results in more chance of a fight occurring. Imagine how you would feel being the receiving human in this situation.
Lastly, there’s more risk for an unsafe interaction if the greeting is occuring with one or both dogs on lead. Being on lead restricts movement which results in less ability to display natural body language. There is also no ability to move away if the dog feels unsafe. If the dog is pulling on lead, this changes their body language to look potentially aggressive. The lead tension is also felt by the dog and this adds more tension to the situation. Imagine how difficult it would be to relax if someone had grabbed your shoulders and stopped you moving freely.
What causes an over excited dog?
Several things can contribute to having a dog who is over excited when seeing other dogs:
- Lack of healthy interactions with other dogs. If your dog likes other dogs it is important they have off lead time with friends. We would suggest doing this with one on one play dates. Initial interactions should be closely supervised by the humans and breaks given to help the dogs not get too excited. This is particularly important if the play is between puppies or teenage dogs as they are less likely to be able to regulate their own excitement levels well. Well socialised dogs will take breaks without the need for human intervention (though the humans may have needed to teach this initially).
- Practice and reinforcement of excited behaviour. Every time your dog is excited and starts pulling you over to the other dog and you follow, your dog has been reinforced for their behaviour. More importantly is that they have rehearsed the feelings of over excitment when seeing and greeting other dogs. This continual rehearsal strengthens the neural pathways in the brain. This meas the more your dog rehearses it, the harder it can be to change how they feel when they see other dogs.
- Your dog has general difficulties in calming down. This can be caused by several situations including: chronically unmet needs in all areas of life; or too much general excitement in life and not enough time spent teaching the dog to settle or switch off; or an underlying anxiety disorder which means that the brain has difficulty settling.
How do I teach my dog to be calm when seeing other dogs?
Prevention is best to prevent an over excited dog when seeing other dogs. From puppyhood we would recommend the following, however you can also practice this from any age:
- If your dog is dog social, make sure you meet their needs with play dates with one or two other dogs at a time. Focus of the interactions should be starting the interaction calmly and giving each dog a break to calm down between play. We use techniques such as ‘find it’, ‘1,2,3’ or dog yoga to help our dogs be calm both before an interaction but also as a break between play. Other basic training techniques to redirect your dog for a break and get them thinking can be useful. There are many options but some common examples are ‘on your bed’, ‘touch’ or ‘look’. These basic cues are also useful to assess how excited your dog is. If they are too excited to do a cue they know well, then it might be time for a longer break. While this approach requires more work, it means you are teaching your dog how to moderate their own excitement levels.
- Have a clear communication to tell your dog when they are not going to meet other dogs. I teach my dog that if they are on leash, it means they will not greet any dogs they see. I like this approach as it is consistent and avoids confusion or frustration. It also means I am avoiding the risk of on leash greetings as described above. There are other options for communication such as a ‘go say hi’ cue, however if this is practiced on leash there is more risk as described above.
- Practice calm alternate behaviours when spotting other dogs. This can include ‘1,2,3’ or ‘find it’ or other cues such as ‘touch’ or ‘look’. Again, there are many options of alternate behaviours. Practice these behaviours at home with no distractions first before you start doing it around dogs.
- Distance is your friend. When teaching our dogsto feel calm when seeing other dogs, we want to be far enough away so our dog is calm and relaxed, but close enough they can see the other dog. This distance will look different for each dog. If your dog is too close, this will simply result in them rehearsing feeling excited and frustrated when they see other dogs. As you progress, your distance will get smaller and smaller.
The above approach looks simple but can be complex to apply in real life. Also, it can be very difficult to assess the difference between an excited dog and a dog that is anxious or fearful that displays this by excessive appeasement or hyperactivity. We recommend if you are having any issues with behaviour you get an appropriate assessment to ensure that you understand the cause of the behaviour so that you don’t dive in with a strategy that will do more harm than good. If you would like some help for you and your dog, please get in touch with us.