Managing our dog's arousal

Written by Naomi White

How can we create the right balance of arousal?

At an optimum level of arousal your dog should be responsive to cues and able to make good choices without any conflicting emotions.

Maintaining an optimum level of arousal continuously is impossible so it’s also important to teach dogs to think through arousal and return to lower levels after a stressful or exciting event. Some dogs are naturally more capable of this than others and if you have a dog who struggles with arousal it’s best to seek help from a trainer who can assist you in working through this.

In a broader sense it’s beneficial to focus on rewarding calm behaviour from your dog, this isn’t necessarily linked to a specific high arousal scenario but more of a consideration for daily life.

Most of us enjoy being around calm dogs; dogs who know how to relax and ‘switch-off’ when we want them to! This default calm state does not come easily to many dogs and they need more help to learn how to make this choice.

Calmness is a low arousal state so it’s further from high arousal, fear or stress. The more we encourage a dog to be in this state, the less they will be in an over-aroused state and in turn, the more they will choose to repeat calm behaviours. In a lower state of arousal, a dog will find it easier to make good choices and respond to cues given by us. If you wonder why your dog appears to go deaf on you, or why he stubbornly ignores you, then arousal may well be playing a role. He’s not trying to be naughty or challenge you, he’s simply not in a thinking state of mind … his focus is elsewhere and he’s doing what comes most naturally in that moment.

Dogs who are living in a constant state of high arousal are more likely to display problem behaviours, they are also more likely to be over-tired and are generally past the point of calm thinking! Outwardly they may appear to have loads of energy and need to be ‘on-the-go’ all day, when in reality they desperately need some proper sleep and relaxation. Dogs need far more sleep and rest time than many people realise, they need to learn this from a young age or have boundaries put in place in order to teach them to rest if they haven’t previously learnt to do so.

Every dog will need different amounts of sleep but on average most dogs will benefit from around 14-16 hours of sleep each day/night and while some will take any opportunity they can get, others need help with this. Many dogs spend their days ‘on alert’, their life is full of stressful or exciting events without much opportunity to relax in between. Stress is part of daily life for all of us, but it can become problematic if it’s not addressed or if it stops our dogs sleeping or resting properly.

Imagine every time you tried to sleep you got woken up by someone pestering you or a loud noise startling you, after a few days you would probably feel pretty exhausted and irritable. Or what if a neighbour shouted at you every time you went outside, it would soon make you feel anxious about going outside and give you the feeling of constant stress. This is what it’s like for so many dogs who struggle to find somewhere quiet to sleep, have never learnt to just switch-off from all the distractions or feel fearful of people, dogs or other aspects in the environment.

Over-tiredness and high-arousal will look different in different dogs and lots of factors can impact problem behaviours but common examples include:

  1. Mouthing or nipping

  2. Barking or reactivity

  3. Easily frustrated

  4. Hyperactive moments (think post-dinner zoomies!)

  5. Destructiveness

There are many ways we can help our dogs to rest properly and learn to enjoy these rest times without us having to step in all the time, just making it part of their routine is the first step…

These ideas can all intertwine and work together to create a dog who lives in a more relaxed and calm state of mind, it promotes calmness and encourages rest time which reduces the time spent practicing problem behaviours or feeling over-tired and stressed out.

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