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Arousal in dogs

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arousal in dogs overarousal

It’s ok, I’ll wait for the giggles to stop…. Finished? Great, so let’s talk about arousal.

Arousal, (not the kind you are thinking of) has a dramatic affect on the day to day behaviour of your dog.

What is arousal?

Arousal, in essence, is the responsiveness of your dog to accept behaviour cues.

Too much arousal and your dog may become unmanageable and reactive.

Not enough arousal and your dog might do nothing at all.

Arousal depends on how outside events are processed in the brain. Not only that, but arousal levels also depend on previous interactions for anywhere up to 72 hours beforehand.

This happens with George occasionally. If you don’t already know, George is not a fan of other dogs.

If we are walking around the streets, George will probably encounter other dogs, usually at the other side of the street. And he is ok with this, as long as they are not barking and lunging at him. Think of that interaction as a cup of water.

Now he might see 2-3 other dogs in a day. Each give George a cup of water.

Where does this water go?

The bucket!

Each cup of water (dose of cortisol, ie stress) pay into your dogs bucket (his tolerance threshold). Every cup adds up until the bucket is over flowing.

When the bucket overflows, the negative behaviour begins. This is the stress relief, or coping mechanism.

Now, it could be that your dog has a big bucket and is able to cope with many mildly stressful interactions, just like Rio who bounces back quickly.

It might be that your dog has a very small bucket and can only cope with one interaction before reacting negatively.

Whatever the size of your dogs bucket, when it over flows, there will be consequences.

There’s a hole in my bucket!

Now, we can’t always just wait until our dogs bucket overflows, for them to return to being relaxed and content.

And we don’t need to. the great thing is that there is a hole in the bottom of the bucket for the water to escape (or the cortisol levels begin to drop).

Again, the size of this hole depends on your dog. Some have big holes and the bucket drains quickly, allowing them to return to a calm, relaxed state by the time they get home from a walk.

Some have small holes (like George), where the bucket overflows quickly, and leaves him in a stressed out, over aroused state for several hours after.

What affects arousal levels?

  • Negative interactions with other dogs (if your dog is fearful, being bullied)
  • Negative interactions with people (vets, groomers, strangers)
  • Excitement (arriving at agility trials, playing with other dogs)
  • Frustration (unable to get to greet a dog, in the car waiting to go to the park).

So what does arousal levels affect?

  • Ability to recall from distractions.
  • Running a fast agility course.
  • Listening in busy environments.
  • Speed of response for a behaviour (ie, not responding to a sit cue as normal).
  • Constant running for tennis ball.
  • The list goes on.

Arousal levels are a key component in so much of dog behaviour.

What does arousal look like?

  • Zoomies, or to give its sciencey name – frenetic random activity period
  • Reactivity with other dogs or people.
  • Pulling on lead.
  • Taking treats harshly.
  • Jumping at guests.
  • Refusing a jump in agility
  • Bouncing off walls.
  • Barking


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