Hyper Dogs

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Very few dogs that come through WAGS are actually, clinically "hyper." Quite a few of them, however, are high-energy dogs descended from hard-working breeds such as border collies, Australian shepherds, heelers, and Jack Russell Terriers -- dogs whose original purpose was to go! go! go! all day every day. Desirable on a sprawling ranch or mountainside pasture, no doubt, but challenging to manage in a modern urban or suburban environment.

Some of these dogs are also highly reactive (meaning, in this context, that they are quick to notice environmental stimuli and respond with greater alertness/activity than less sensitive dogs might), mouthy, easily frustrated, and/or socially clumsy. Some are highly intelligent and bored in the absence of new mental challenges. Add all these things up, and you can have a very demanding case on your hands.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to help, and most dogs are very responsive to a holistic regimen.

Identify and Remove Stressors

The first step is to identify and remove stressors that could be exacerbating the dog's problematic behavior.

  • Diet: Poor-quality commercial foods are linked to a variety of problems, including "hyper" behavior in some dogs. If your foster pup's diet contains low-quality ingredients, chemical preservatives, added sweeteners, or artificial colorings (particularly red dye), switch to a higher-quality food. Feed two meals a day, one in the morning and one at night, to avoid dramatic spikes or drops in the dog's blood sugar, which can cause moodiness and irritability.
  • Home Environment: Consider whether your home environment could be a contributing factor. Is it in a very noisy location? Are there lots of active, playful children in the home? Excitable children can escalate an excitable dog's energy level very quickly, and sometimes to dangerous levels. Are there other pets who are causing tension? If these appear to be major factors and you cannot adjust or remove them, it may be best for all concerned to transfer the dog to a different, calmer foster home.
  • Sleep: Hand-in-hand with the previous question comes the next: is the dog getting enough quality sleep? Dogs sleep a lot -- up to seventeen hours a day, left to their own devices -- and if their rest is constantly being disturbed by a chaotic home environment, that can be a contributing factor to snappish, frenetic behavior.
  • Your Own Behavior: How are you interacting with the dog? Tension feeds on tension. Excitement spurs excitement. Correction-based training and the use of painful training equipment such as prong collars, choke collars, e-collars and "invisible fences" can greatly increase a dog's stress levels. While I view calmness and positive training as crucial for all dogs, that's especially true of dogs with potential behavioral issues, including "hyper" ones. Be gentle (which is not to say permissive), and -- as difficult as this will be sometimes! -- strive for serenity.


The second step is to ensure that your dog is receiving enough mental and physical exercise, and the right kinds of exercise.

Most pet dogs are under-exercised. A healthy adult dog of most breeds needs at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical exercise per day. Less active dogs who receive adequate mental stimulation can get by with 30 to 60 minutes. High-energy dogs need a lot more.

Walking on leash, even at a brisk pace, typically does not count as adequate exercise for most dogs in good health. (Exceptions may include small short-faced breeds such as French bulldogs and pugs, toy breeds who have to trot to keep up with a human stride, and senior dogs.) For most dogs, a stroll around the block is maddeningly slow. If you've ever hiked with an energetic dog off-leash, you know that they can literally run circles around their people, going easily three to five times the distance of their human companions at a much faster pace, and still be less tired than you are at the end of the day.

So what does count as adequate exercise? Jogging, running alongside a bike (there are flexible leash extensions that help a dog run safely on-leash with a bicycle), vigorous off-leash play with other dogs, games of fetch or frisbee, and anything else that gets a dog to run.

You might have to get a little creative. If your foster dog doesn't have a reliable recall (most don't!) and you don't have a fenced backyard, you might have to put your pup on a longline before you can play fetch or frisbee safely. If your foster dog is not always trustworthy with other strange dogs, avoid the dog park and invite safe, known canine friends over for play dates instead. (Or, if your foster dog is unpredictable with all dogs, just cross this off your list. While doggy playtime is great fun, it should also be safe for all participants. If you can't guarantee that, find other ways to exercise your dog.)

If your foster pup is not too interested in chasing a frisbee or tennis ball, try relay games with two people instead, where the dog is called from one person to the other and receives a reward upon reaching each one. As a side bonus, this exercise also works as a great recall drill. Or (if you have the cash to spare) splurge on a Manners Minder, a beeping robot used in several dog sports that dispenses treats at a distance. Call your dog back to you, then send him out to the robot for a reward, then call him back, and so on. Hide the robot and have him find it based on the beeps.

Your imagination is the limit. Find ways to make that dog run!

Be careful, however, that your foster pup is not getting over-excited. Some high-energy dogs can slip out of control when they get riled up. Tug, wrestling or rough-housing, and chase games (especially games where the dog chases a small child) can be problematic. Loud, exciting events such as flyball or a rowdy day at the dog park can also send them over the top. If you find that your foster dog is getting overly mouthy or jumpy, or is taking too long to cool down after participating in some activities, eliminate those activities from his schedule. You might be able to add them back later, but at this stage they are likely to be counterproductive to your training regimen.

Also remember that your foster dog needs mental exercise as well as physical outlets for his energy. Positive training is huge here. Not only does training improve the dog's attention span, encourage focus, and provide plenty of mental stimulation, but it makes the dog more appealing to adopters by increasing his repertoire of cued behaviors. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial some basic obedience training is for a high-energy dog.

In addition to that, you can provide "distraction games" for those times when you've got other things to do and can't sink the energy into a structured one-on-one training session. Most of these involve variations of "get the food from an inaccessible spot," such as a puzzle toy. The classic Kong, hollow kibble-dispensing toys like the Kong Wobbler or Buster Cube, and more complex puzzles like Nina Ottosson's line of interactive toys are all good choices. You can also make temporary, cheapo versions by wrapping treats in a crunched-up paper bag (and then stuffing those bags into cardboard boxes for an extra layer of difficulty -- put all those Amazon orders' packaging to good use!), smearing peanut butter inside an empty paper towel tube, or using an empty plastic water bottle as a makeshift kibble dispenser. The eviscerated remains of stuffed animals can also be re-stuffed with kibble after your foster dog has had her fun tearing out all the original stuffing.

Not all of these toys will be suitable for all dogs, but to the extent possible, make your dog work for her meals.


Finally, you can train your dog to be calm.

It is important to address environmental stressors and ensure your foster pup is adequately exercised before you attempt calmness training. Otherwise, the training exercises will at best be useless (because your dog won't be able to concentrate or perform the behaviors) and at worst may become poisoned (if your foster dog learns to associate them with frustration on his end or yours). Rehabilitating a poisoned cue is very difficult, especially if the equipment itself has developed negative associations for your dog.

It is also critical to remember that these dogs tend to be easily distractable and have even more difficulty than most in maintaining focus, so train in short sessions, expect to spend a long time proofing the behaviors, and manage unwanted behaviors if your foster pup isn't yet capable of regulating herself in the face of strong temptations. Your dog may never progress past a boring indoor environment while you have him in foster care. That's fine! It is still well worth starting these exercises. You'll have given him a head start in his adoptive home, and it should be much easier for the adopter to continue to build on the foundations you've laid than to start anew from nothing.

Here are some of specific behaviors that you may find useful in training calmness:

  • Breathe. Click and reward your foster dog for taking deep breaths. Watch for the nostril flare that indicates a deep breath, then capture that with a click and reward it. (Holding a piece of a nice smelly treat in your hand will encourage your dog to offer the behavior, making it much easier to capture.) You can put this on cue to literally tell your dog to "take a deep breath and relax" -- here is a clip of my dog Pongu doing so. By training this behavior in progressively longer sessions, you can effectively achieve doggy meditation.
  • Watch Me/Attention, Please!
  • Sit/Down Stay. Foundations for the later behaviors.
  • Go to Mat/Rest on Mat. Teach your foster dog to sit or lie on a mat and reward calmness there. This is not quite the same thing as a formal Stay, but it's much easier to teach if your dog has that concept, since there's some overlap in the behaviors. You can strengthen this behavior quickly by having your dog sit on the same mat while practicing other relaxation exercises (as Pongu is lying on his mat while practicing in the Breathe clip above -- practicing Dr. Overall's relaxation protocol on a mat is a great way to build this behavior to a high level fairly quickly). Eventually you may be able to cue your dog to go to her mat instead of rushing the door when guests arrive.
  • Go to Crate/Relax in Crate. As above, but with a crate instead of a mat.
  • Four on the Floor. Click and reward your foster dog for having all four feet on the floor instead of jumping up to greet you.

Each of these exercises reinforces the others by rewarding the dog for exhibiting calm behaviors. Just as people sometimes feel better when they take an effort to dress nicely and smile (even if you don't feel like it!), dogs can feel calmer by acting calmer. The more you practice and reinforce these behaviors, the more your foster pup's self-control will improve.

It may also be helpful to countercondition and desensitize your foster dog to any known triggers for excitable behavior, such as restraint and/or body handling. Many "hyper" dogs respond poorly to being restrained or having their teeth, ears, and/or feet examined, yet the adopters are likely to need to do these things at some point in the dog's life (and even if they don't, veterinarians or groomers surely will). Therefore, it is advisable to accustom your foster dog to basic grooming, handling, and restraint procedures as best you can in the time that you have.