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16 May 2010

Arousal - The Good and the Bad

This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work, posted here with her permission. Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer). Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.

Arousal is a term you hear and read about quite a lot in dog training – from how to training books to popular TV shows. You hear it but you probably don’t really understand just how important it is. A certain level of arousal is needed for play, mental stimulation, training and learning but if it goes beyond a certain level then arousal gets to a level where a dog just can’t think – it can’t learn – it can only react. This is not something you want to see in dog to dog or dog to people interactions and it certainly isn’t something you want to see in a training session.

So what is arousal?

The term is often used to describe a state of high energy – energy that might be caused by excitement through play, fear, anger or by stress. High arousal levels (regardless of cause) appear very closely linked to aggression so it really helps to be able to predict, identify and manage increasing arousal levels.

The more activity that there is going on in any environment the higher the arousal level will be.

Play can also lead to escalating arousal levels – in play there is a certain joyful abandon and shedding of inhibitions. Play is exciting – that’s why it’s so much fun. But all this can lead to high levels of arousal where the dog loses self control – and in this they are no different than people at a sports match or kids in a playgroup.

What are the signs of high arousal?

Signs of high arousal include:
·         Dilated pupils
·         Excessive panting
·         Higher respiration rates
·         Higher blink rates
·         Higher tongue flick rates
·         Half moon eyes
·         High pitched repetitive barking or whining
·         Piloerection (hackles raised)
·         Flared whiskers
·         Penis crowning
·         Frenetic behaviour
·         Stiff body language
·         Hyper or nervous behaviour such as pacing or excessive jumping.

Other signs you will commonly see are the complete lack of ability to concentrate and what might seem to be ‘selective deafness’.

This is not a time to ask your dog to perform behaviours (even ones they know really well) and particularly not calling them to you unless you are prepared for a very low probability that they will respond. These are not something your dog is choosing to do to drive you nuts. If it happens to your dog you need to manage the situation as best you can and then think about what happened and how to avoid getting/letting your dog to that level again.

How do you avoid it?

To avoid over arousal in your dog you firstly need to learn more about dog body language and what to look for as arousal builds.

One of the best tips in play (dog to dog or dog to human) is to not let play go on uninterrupted for long periods. Frequently interrupt by asking your dog to do something to show that they are still in control of their actions and that you are in control of them. You might ask for a sit or for your dog to give you the toy and wait for permission to continue playing.

Being able to calm down your dog in an aroused situation is a key skill all dog owners should work on. You never know when you might need to rely on it to get you and your dog out of a sticky situation.

Dr Ian Dunbar has some neat tips on teaching what he calls ‘jazz up’ and ‘settle down’ to adolescents and adult dogs. Check them out at:

He also thinks that they should be the first lesson taught in training classes – as it is a key reason many people come to classes in the first place (to get some level of control in aroused situations) and because it then gives people a strategy to use when new people and dogs and other distractions interrupt classes.

I checked for other useful links for training these behaviours and unfortunately came up blank.

·         Barbara Handelman – Canine Behaviour. A Photo Illustrated Handbook

·         Karen B. London & Patricia B. McConnell – Play Together, Stay Together. Happy and Healthy Play Between People and Dogs

·         Pat Miller – Play With Your Dog

·         Robin Bennett – Off-Leash Dog Play. A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun

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