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How to calm an excitable dog

22/10/2018 - Latest News

It’s great to be greeted by a happy dog, but when that dog is so excited he’s out of control it can be overwhelming or even dangerous. Nobody wants to be knocked over and covered in slobber! In this blog we’re looking at impulse control, good manners and calmness.
It’s not just humans who are put-off by an over eager greeting. When greeting other dogs, boisterous behaviour can lead to a fight. Nervous dogs especially don’t appreciate being jumped on and will sometimes protect themselves with growls and bites.

Using harsh methods to control an excited dog can lead to him being reluctant to interact with anyone or anything. I always feel really sad when I meet dogs who have so little confidence that they are unwilling to socialise at all.
Once a dog is highly excited, it’s difficult to calm him down quickly. It’s far better to teach impulse control so that he doesn’t get into that state in the first place.
Reward based reinforcement training methods work brilliantly for excitable dogs and, depending on the circumstances, they’re faster than you might imagine.

Teaching impulse control
I’ve been working lately with a beautiful young golden retriever called Chappie. He’s adorable, very happy and very friendly with the kindest eyes you’ve ever seen. But his owners were worried that he was just too exuberant. He would pull on the lead because he just loved his walks and whenever he met everyone he’d plant his paws square on their chest and give them a big wet kiss. He just had no self-control.
For Chappie, I’ve used a technique that rewards what we call dog trainers call “mutually exclusive behaviour.”

What is Mutually Exclusive Behaviour?
Mutually exclusive means that two things cannot happen at the same time. You cannot throw a “6” and a “1” with the same dice at the same time. Likewise, your dog cannot jump up at anyone if he is sitting down at the same time. Neither can he run around like a loon if he’s holding eye contact with you.

To my mind, the ONLY way to teach mutually exclusive behaviour is to keep things positive. That’s what builds strong neurological pathways in his sub-conscious brain. No shouting at the dog or punishing him. In actual fact, with my methods, the dog discovers for himself which behaviours bring what he most wants. And when a dog – or a person – learns something for themselves, the lesson sticks.

Rewarding desirable behaviour
If you can work out what a dog wants to gain from his behaviour, you can set terms and conditions which involve mutually exclusive behaviour. With Chappie, it was “when you are sitting down, then I’ll talk to you“.
Chappie came to me for residential training but there’s no reason why an owner can’t achieve fabulous results at home. It just involves patience, consistency and maybe a little support and guidance from an experienced mentor.
With Chappie, it was clear from the outset that he wanted to interact with whoever it was he was meeting. The reward for his behaviour was attention. Any attention. So if he jumped up and was pushed to the floor, to his mind, that physical touch counted as attention. So naturally he came back for more.

My strategy was simple. I demonstrated to Chappie that Jumping up won’t give him the attention he craves. However, sitting down and looking cute will.

When Chappie jumped up at me I didn’t engage. No speaking, no touching, nothing. I just stepped backwards or twisted to one side so that his paws landed back on the floor. That confused him. He tested my reaction by jumping again and again. The jumps got bigger and more determined but every time he jumped up, my reaction was the same. Rejection. So he sat down to figure it out. The second his rump hit the floor he was rewarded with a “good boy” and a treat.

It didn’t take many repeats of the exercise for Chappie to work out that sitting nicely earned him the attention he craved.

Here’s Chappie in residential training – he still desperately wants to boing about but he’s learnt that the good stuff only comes when he’s sitting down.

Repeating the exercise every time Chappie and I met reinforced to him that he needs to stay calm and be respectful. And therein lies the key to success. Repetition and consistency. Biologically speaking training in this way builds new neurological pathways in the dog’s brain. The dog will appear to test your reactions because his brain really wants to use that old established pathway. Consistently ignoring the “bad” behaviour and reinforcing the “right” behaviour will build a newer, stronger pathway in the brain and eventually it becomes a set pattern. Inconsistency delays that process.

For a while Chappie and I had to start from the beginning every time that we met. But, each time the desired behaviour came to him quicker. As you saw in the video, he did learn to manage his behaviour. When residential training finished I explained the technique to Chappie’s owners before they met up with him so that they could continue to support his learning.

If you have a high-energy excitable dog
Chappie is an adorable healthy young dog, who, just like a human child, needed to learn social skills. But excitability can be caused by a myriad of things. Every dog is different.

Before you embark on a training programme it’s important to get down to the root cause of the problem. That way you have a better chance of solving it at source.

A good dog trainer knows how to read canine body language and work out WHY the dog is getting so excited in certain situations. What does the dog want? What would be a more sociably acceptable way for him to achieve his aims? How will you teach him?

As a dog trainer I ask lots of questions and make lots of observations before I start training. I want to know:

  • Is the dog generally healthy?
  • Could he be under stimulated and in need of an outlet for his physical and mental energy?
  • Could he be overstimulated and therefore struggling to focus?
  • Excitement is sometimes a manifestation of frustration. Does this dog’s breed compel him to behave in a certain way? And are his natural behaviours being supressed by his lifestyle? (eg A border collie with no sheep needs a different outlet for his running and herding instincts, just as a gundog breed who doesn’t work still wants to hunt and retrieve.)
  • Is the “bad” behaviour being reinforced accidentally?
  • Has a past experience created this behaviour pattern?

If you have a dog whose excitement is a problem, I strongly advise booking a 1-2-1 session with a qualified dog trainer before embarking on a training programme. You might be surprised at what you learn and how much it speeds your progress.

Contact Sean at Premier Dog Training
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