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Understanding arousal in dogs

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

The Role of Arousal in Dog Behaviour and Training

Written by Naomi White

Do you ever find some days your dog just seems a bit more wired? Maybe he seems stressed, unsettled, easily excited, or maybe he suddenly starts barking at something he wouldn’t normally care about? When doing any form of training or behaviour work with a dog it’s important to consider arousal…

Arousal essentially refers to a dog’s level of responsiveness. It could be his responsiveness to events instigated by you (e.g. cueing the dog to sit), or events he encounters within the environment (e.g. other dogs). When exposed to an exciting or stressful stimulus, the brain floods with excitatory chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol, which impact consciousness, attention and information processing.

Arousal is not exclusively linked to negative events, like fear or startling events, it also occurs in positive events too, for example, social play or a game of fetch. It must be considered in all aspects of a dog’s life, not just the negative ones.

Too much arousal can reduce the ability of the thinking part of the brain and increase the survival response (flight or fight). Increased arousal is a normal response to perceived threats, but it can become excessive and detrimental to normal life.

After a stressful event, the initial release of adrenaline should clear soon after the trigger has gone but the glucocorticoids that were released in the response can take between 48hours to 6 days to clear, depending how intense the reaction was.

Each stressful event causes a rise in adrenaline and cortisol, as these hormones build up the dog will have less tolerance for daily events because their systems are repeatedly flooded with hormones. In turn, all their energy is focused on maintaining some balance in the presence of these chemicals and there is little left to deal with outside challenges.

Think about when you play a game of tug or fetch with your dog, at some point during the game does he start to become ‘crazy’? Grabbing your hands, jumping at you, barking for you to throw the ball? Or maybe you’re playing fetch in the park and another dog comes over, your dog suddenly rushes over, barrels into the dog or starts growling at it? These types of behaviour can come as a surprise to us or they might be the reason we give up playing with our dogs, because they turn unpleasant during games… this is where arousal comes into play!

Things like playing fetch, playing with other dogs or meeting new people can all lead to higher levels of arousal in our dogs. When dealing with arousal and working to reduce or manage it, it’s important to include all areas of your dog’s life. Every time arousal is increased, regardless of the cause, the dog is pushed closer to their threshold level, making them less able to think and respond, and more likely to react or disengage. Instead of assuming your dog is being ignorant, stubborn or even aggressive, consider whether he’s actually in a highly aroused state and therefore unable to process your commands or requests… his brain is simply somewhere else and he has bigger concerns to focus on.

The good news is we can use high arousal activities, like fetch or tug, to teach our dogs to control their arousal levels better and switch more effectively from a state of high arousal to low arousal!

We can strive to keep our dog at optimum arousal where he’s able to be responsive to cues and make good choices without any conflicting emotions. This level will vary depending on the situation, you may want to increase arousal during agility training so the dog is quick and responsive, but at home you will want lower arousal, so the dog is relaxed and calm…

…And that brings us to the next post …

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