What is hyperactivity?
Hyperactivity simply means to be excessively active. In dogs, in can range from simply behaving with exuberance to showing constantly active, disruptive or frenzied behaviour. It is one of the most common behaviour issues I see in dogs!
Hyperactive behaviours include pulling on the lead excessively, rushing up to other dogs and people, jumping up, seeming unable to sit still, being over-excitable or difficult to control and train, barking or yelping excessively, attention-seeking constantly, being destructive, running in circles or behaving obsessively.
The actual clinical syndrome of hyperactivity – hyperkinesis – is quite rare in dogs, so I’m just talking about the behavioural version rather than the medical condition. If you’re worried your dog has hyperkinesis, see a vet as there are treatments that can help!
Why does it occur?
Hyperactivity can come about as a result of a dog’s natural play and soliciting behaviours, which evolved in ancestral wolves as an expression of each animal’s desire to interact physically with its pack.
The wolf’s playful physical interactions and affiliative group behaviours stimulate the release of the bonding hormones oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin and dopamine. These shape and reward amicable behaviours, and help build love, trust, cooperation and loyalty within the pack. Excessive behaviour is not tolerated by older dogs or wolves, so would have been nipped in the bud very quickly by muzzle-grabbing and standing over.
However, as humans and dogs have evolved together throughout the ages, dogs have become juvenilised which has increased their frequency of play compared with wolves. This selective breeding for puppy-like traits has increased a dog’s predisposition to hyperactivity, which has meant that a dog’s natural and healthy play and soliciting behaviours can at times go overboard. Also, our love for dogs can result in us unintentionally rewarding them for their hyperactive tendencies and therefore increasing them!
One of the common symptoms of hyperactivity is when your dog jumps all over you as you enter the house. Wolf pups greet pack members returning from a hunt in this way, by pawing , jumping up and licking their jowls to stimulate the elder to regurgitate its food. Wolves also show similar behaviour preceding the hunt: it gets them excited and encourages cooperation. These behaviours serve a useful purpose – they prevent pups from being forgotten after a hunt and left to starve, and it helps the pack bond together. Later, dogs directed this behaviour towards humans.
However without the natural ability to correct this behaviour as wolves and wild dogs do, it can get out of hand.
Hyperactive dogs show the same excited behaviours when they are going out (e.g. for a walk) or when you get home. If you were on all fours like a dog, your dog would be licking your jowls, but as your mouth is up high, your dog has to jump up on you to try and get to them.
These are the natural origins and purpose of your excitable dog’s behaviours!
How do we make it worse?
We often accidentally reward and encourage hyperactive behaviours. Some ways we do this are:
- by talking to or handling your dog when it behaves hyperactively e.g by lavishing your dog with attention when you arrive home at the end of the day, even if she’s jumping up on you
- by over-stimulating your dog when you come home, with your own excitement at seeing her
- by giving your dog the outcome she desires when she’s acting hyperactively e.g. by letting her outside when she’s jumping up at the door, or letting her off-lead when she’s pulling on the lead
- by turning hyperactive tendencies into a game. If you want to play with your hyperactive dog, make sure it is a clearly defined activity, so give the beginning and end a clear signal and have a dedicated toy that denotes that this is play
When your dog is hyperactive, they are trying to solicit a reward from you – whether that be some of your attention, hearing your voice, feeling your touch, getting a treat or being let off a lead. We want to shape and reward calm, loving behaviours but not excessively high-energy hyperactive ones.
Breeds most prone to hyperactivity
Some dogs are more genetically predisposed to hyperactivity, due to being selectively bred by humans for high-arousal, high-energy activities such as hunting and herding as well as high sociability.
Some breeds that may be more prone to hyperactivity include:
- Working breeds e.g. Border Collies and heading dogs that are designed to run/work long periods of the day
- Hunting breeds e.g. Springer Spaniels, Labradors, Jack Russells, Vizslas, Weimaraners
Training a hyperactive dog
If you are struggling with a hyperactive dog, check out our online course designed especially for this issue. It covers everything you need to know to help get your dog in a calm Learning State, and to treat issues like jumping up, pulling on the lead, poor recall and over-excitability.
Find out more here.