Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

by Ana on January 9, 2012

Physical exercise is necessary and healthy for all dogs. However, there are a few common problems we see in client’s dogs who are not exercised properly. Today we’ll discuss one of the biggest problems, overarousal due to exercise, and the myth that you should exercise “crazy” dogs more.

Arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and emotional control. A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with a fast heartrate and respiration and poor impulse control. He may have dilated pupils or chatter his teeth. He may pant, jump around or on you, or vocalize incessantly. He may become grabby or mouthy. Alternatively, he may become “locked on” to an activity, freezing in place and staring intently at the object of his obsession, spinning in circles, or pacing.

Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Remember that stress is not necessarily bad. When we think of stress, we often think of negative stress, or distress. However, there’s also positive stress, known as eustress. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on are both stressful activities, and your body actually responds to them the same way even though your emotional response to each is different. This point is important for us to understand as it relates to our dogs, because happily exciting events still create a physiological stress response in your dog’s body.

Why does this matter? Stress causes physical changes in the body. When you or your dog becomes stressed, your body releases certain stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just instantly dissipate. They hang around for awhile (the most commonly quoted length of time is 72 hours, but estimates range from mere hours to an entire week depending on who you ask).

Consider this, then. If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. Consider how you would feel if you won the lottery, rode a rollercoaster, or attended your favorite band’s rock concerts every single day. Our bodies aren’t built for prolonged periods of excitement, even when the excitement is positive.

What does this have to do with our dogs? I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. These dogs are also often victims of the wrong sort of exercise. Exercise that amps your dog up is okay in moderation, but allowing your dog to engage in it every day will likely do more harm than good. This is highly individual, but is most commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs playing fetch every day or highly dog-social and excitable dogs visiting the dog park or daycare regularly.

If this sounds like your dog, there is hope! Cut down on overly arousing activities and replace them with other physical and mental exercise. Save these exciting activities for special times. My dogs both enjoy the flirt pole, but only play with it a few times a month due to how highly aroused they get while chasing it. Layla adores lure coursing above all other activities, but she takes 3 full days to recover after just a few runs after the lure because she becomes so over-the-top waiting for her turn (words cannot describe the bark-scream-screech sound she makes in line). Dobby loves to play fetch, but two days in a row with the chuck-it or frisbee creates a dog who’s not very pleasant to live with.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other common exercise pitfalls as well as some great ways to exercise your dog. Have you ever had to limit an activity your dog adored because it caused him to become too overstimulated? Please share your stories in the comments below!

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