Christine Bauhs, CPDT-KA
Does your dog have no chill?
Is your dog out of control? Hyperactive, destructive, anxious, reactive - even explosive? Do you feel that no amount of exercise can calm the wild beast you share your home with?
You’re not alone.
A growing trend I’m seeing over the last few years are dogs that just can't. They can’t settle down, they can’t focus, they can’t learn, they can’ t CHILL.
As I’ve been observing this trend, and resolving these kinds of issues with dogs of all breeds and ages, I’ve come to some conclusions about what is at the root of this problem.
And while I see a number of factors contributing to the overall condition (behavior is holistic, after all!), one thing sticks out to me the most and is a pretty consistent factor in the cases that I have personally worked.
That factor is the myth that has been promulgated in the dog training world for years – a tired dog is a good/happy/well-behaved dog.
I understand the intent behind this notion and why it has become so prevalent – exercise is absolutely crucial to a dog’s wellbeing and many dogs are, indeed, under-exercised. But exercise is not the end all be all. Period. There is so much more to the equation than simply throwing your dog on a treadmill and calling it a day.
The phenomenon I’m witnessing now is a growing number of dogs that are tired, but wired. Their bodies are physically exhausted from copious amounts of high adrenaline exercise, but their minds are so over-stimulated that they can’t settle. I’d imagine this could make a dog quite cranky (I know it does for me!).
It’s a vicious cycle when you try to exercise behavior problems out of a dog. You end up turning your dog into an athlete with the endurance level of an Olympian. So you have a dog that can misbehave harder, longer, faster. Not good.
What’s missing for these dogs is mental stimulation. Using their brain. Thinking. Learning. Problem solving. Mental exertion is as important (actually, I consider it even more important) as physical exertion. And if you are not providing it on a regular basis, chances are your dog is a bit crazy.
So what is the difference and why is it so important? Let’s take a look at what is physiologically happening during these activities.
When dogs engage in high-energy activities, certain chemicals are released in their body that prepare the dog for fight or flight. These chemicals include cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. With these hormones coursing through their body, it’s very hard for the dog to settle down and relax.
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that it can take up to SIX DAYS for these hormone levels to return to normal. So if a dog is engaging in adrenalizing activities every day, chances are their hormone levels are never returning to a balanced state. This could mean that the dog is in a perpetual state of physiological stress. No wonder why this poor dog can’t chill – his body is in a state of emergency.
So what kinds of activity are “high-energy”? Depends on the dog, to some extent. But in general, this includes:
Walks where the dog is constantly pulling, vigilantly scanning the environment and/or displaying reactive behavior
Being exposed to stress triggers
Intense play with toys or other dogs
Being in a stimulating environment for prolonged periods of time
For so many of the dogs I work with, their only physical exercise comes from activities on this list above. And the result is that they may be physically tired, but they come back to their home over-stimulated mentally and unable to settle down and deeply rest. Many of these dogs seem to have no “off” switch.
But the good news is, there IS an off switch and answer to this problem. You need to provide your dog with activities that provide both physical and mental stimulation. Activities that require your dog to focus, problem-solve and think.
Some examples include:
Decompression walks (This concept is credited to brilliant mind of dog trainer Sarah Stremming, read more here.)
Nosework and scent games
Calming leash work
Shaping and clicker training
Providing interactive toys, food puzzles and other sources of enrichment
By incorporating more enriching and mental stimulating activities, you will help your dog achieve his optimal state of chill. I've watched so many dogs go through incredible transformations when we simply changed the kinds of activities that were doing every day.
For more information on teaching your dog to relax and settle down, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine Bauhs is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) and the owner of K9 Holistics Dog Training. She provides training solutions that are kind, fun and effective for both ends of the leash throughout Saint Petersburg and Tampa Bay.