Case study: Moss the Overexcitable Pup
Little Moss here is a mixed breed pup, who (like MANY pups) was overexcitable and very nippy. With hunting and working breeds as part of his mix, he is naturally stimulated by movement and loves the thrill of the chase!
So with young kids in the house, he was chasing them, jumping on them, knocking them over and being very nippy.
Naturally, his parents wanted the kids to grow up loving the puppy, not being scared of him! So that meant a crusade to CALM him – giving him appropriate outlets for his puppy energy, while encouraging him to be settled, calm and gentle with the little ones.
What were the behaviours to work on?
- Jumping up all over everyone
- Nipping (especially the owner’s young kids – little ones are often the biggest target!)
- Scrambling all over furniture
- Not listening or responding
- General hyperactive and over-excitable behaviour
This is all perfectly normal puppy behaviour, but if you’ve raised a pup you’ll know it can be pretty full on, and when you’ve got babies and young kids in the house especially, you want your pup nice and calm and not biting them or knocking them over.
So.. what were a few of the techniques we prescribed for Moss?
My top 5 training techniques to calm an overexcited pup
Moss was trained using our Virtual Puppy School. This handful of techniques from our school are all easy and achievable ways to teach a puppy how to settle down and be calm. There is absolutely a time for play, and zoomies, and going a bit crazy (that stuff is so important for a pup!) but we also want our pups to know how to be calm and of course, how to be gentle. Those sharp little teeth can be painful!
If you’re training your pup, make sure you check out our Virtual Puppy School for absolutely everything you need to know to raise and train your pup, in an easy to follow week by week guide.
1. Bond Gaze & Zen Sit
This is a very simple little exercise to practise with your pup to help them bond with you. When your pup is tightly bonded to you, they respect you, listen to you, look to you for direction and are less likely to jump and scramble all over you or nip you. When your pup gazes into your eyes, it activates oxytocin and dopamine which calms them down and relaxes them.
To teach your pup the bond gaze and Zen Sit, use a clicker and high value food rewards. Ask your pup to Sit, click and reward. If pup looks up at you naturally, click and reward. To encourage your pup to look up to you, let them sniff a high value treat in your hand then hold it in front of your eyes. When they look up at the treat (and therefore you), immediately click then give the food reward. You can use their name to get their attention and use a Watch command if you like.
Initially, click and reward immediately when your pup looks up at you, then slowly and gradually start to draw out the amount of time you wait before you click and reward, so that they’re gazing at you for a good few seconds before they get the reward. Then use your hand up at your eyes with no food, but still click and reward, then slowly fade using your hand at all and just use the Watch command.
I call this the ‘Zen Sit’ because the bond gaze calms the pup. This should become the go-to way your pup asks you for attention, or anything. He just sits and looks intently up into your eyes. Let him do this for a bit then pat him gently and sit down and enjoy some time together.
Moss’ owner would practise the bond gaze regularly throughout the day to foster calm, focused behaviour. See in this photo me demonstrating with little Bruna the cavoodle.
2. Zen Down, Zen Down, Zen Down
This is the most calming command, an absolute essential for ANY dog! It is so powerful, you can’t underestimate it.
This curled Zen Down position relaxes the dorsal muscles and activates the vagas nerve within the enteric nervous system, which induces a state of calm and learning in your pup or dog.
It’s known as ‘embodied cognition’ in humans, where your body posture communicates your state to the brain, which in turn affects your attitude and feelings. This means you basically change the chemistry in your pup’s brain and their emotions with their body posture! You will notice this change by a calming and relaxing in their body tone. Get good at noticing and inducing this state of PSA (parasympathetic arousal).
This is an essential command for EVERY dog, but especially useful for training pups to be more calm.
In this video below, see how my son Koan gets the dog into a standard Down position first, then uses a piece of food to lure the dog’s nose around to encourage him to flip his back legs and hip over. Click and reward the instant that happens to reinforce that this is what you want!
Moss’ owner found this one command particularly useful. Every time she had the kids and the pup together, she would take the clicker and some cubes of cheese and practise the Zen Down command. It was so effective that within a week or two, Moss had a very powerful association between hanging out with the kids, and being in Zen Down, so whenever he was with the kids he’d automatically drop to a relaxed Zen Down position! No more jumping up on them, biting or stealing their food – just happy to relax in their company.
3. Nothing in life is free
This is a useful training principle that helps you establish your bond with your pup, and communicates to your pup that you are in charge of access to anything they like or want – food, your attention, freedom, off-lead time, play etc. Pups prioritise their key relationships largely based on who controls the resources!
You reward your pup for appropriate behaviour by giving them access to the things they want. That is, don’t let them have access to these thing without working for it just a little bit e.g. ask for a Sit or Wait before eating or going through the door. If you only reward your pup when they are doing desired behaviours or commands, you will quickly quash inappropriate behaviours. So in the early days, always ask your pup to do something before they get something – ask for a Sit or Down before you pat them, ask them to Wait before eating their meals or going out the door, ask your pup to Sit before you take them off lead etc. When you ask the dog to do something and they do, activity is created in the prefrontal cortex (the “thinking” brain) so it immediately dampens anxiety fear or excitability in the emotional centres of the brain.
When starting training, I recommend for the first 2-3 months, you always ask your pup to do something simple for a reward. That way your pup learns they need to look to you for guidance before making their own choices!
Using this principle of access to resources can also help you teach a pup to respect and be more calm around others. So if a pup isn’t respecting your young kids, get your young kids feeding pup their meals (with supervision) & giving pup treats when pup is nice and calm (controlling food resource), and spending time playing and connecting with the pup (controlling contact resource).
Moss’ owners found that this very quickly helped Moss learn that if he wanted something, he’d get it more quickly by sitting quietly rather than jumping up! They also got their toddler doing some very basic clicker training with treats, and involved in giving Moss his dinner – in my experience, kids enjoy a pup more when they’re involved in its care too! They are also learning critical life skills that encourage empathy and compassion as well as responsibility.
4. Clip Station
This is an amazingly simple but effective tool. A clip station is simply a lead or light chain clipped to the wall (or secured around a very heavy piece of furniture) with a dog mat or bed beside it. The lead should not be too long, only 0.5 – 1m. It helps recreate the concept of a “den”, a safe, contained space for pup to retreat to. It provides physical control that allows you to settle your pup down, and is also excellent for house training purposes, separation training and more. Your pup will come to love it and automatically settle down when on the clip station if it’s introduced properly!
I’m CONSTANTLY recommending more clip station training during my consultations with clients. It’s often overlooked as it seems too basic, but it really works!
Once you have introduced the clip station and established it as a safe, peaceful place (with lots of clicking and rewarding on the clip station, starting with short periods of time and working up to longer periods of time), you can use it as a way to teach your pup to be calm and settled.
Set a few up around the house in social areas e.g. living room, kitchen, deck, home office. If your kids need a bit of space from the overexcited pup, you can pop the pup on the clip station to settle down. Pup is then still present and involved in family life, but learning how to lie down and relax while the kids are nearby. Practise plenty of Sit and Zen Down commands on the clip station, and lots of clicking and rewarding when pup is calm and settled there. Soon you’ll notice your pup starts to retreat to this spot by choice!
“This was a godsend in the early days with Moss, when the two little girls needed a break from having the puppy all over them. It helped Moss learn how to relax and settle down while the girls were playing beside him rather than always having to put him outside. We had one by the trampoline where we often have picnics and in no time, he understood that picnic time is relax time, even when he wasn’t clipped up anymore!”
5. Appropriate exercise, stimulation & play
Pups absolutely need exercise, stimulation and play, so part of working with an overexcitable pup is making sure they do have an appropriate level of these things! Make sure you’re walking your pup at an appropriate level for their age, with plenty of time for pup to sniff and explore their surroundings. Do training sessions each day with your pup (5-10 minutes 2 – 3 times a day is ideal) as this really exercises their brain and tires them out beautifully. Play with your pup, and make sure your pup has engaging puppy toys available to them.
If your pup is getting a bit too much, it’s okay to pop them outside with some toys to burn off some energy and have some crazy zoomie time! Let them do it, but let them do it outside in a way that’s not destructive.
Giving our pup play and stimulation is essential if we expect our pup to be able to be calm at other times.
Moss’ owner got into a good routine of having awesome play time and training time with Moss, but having boundaries around this time so that he knew that there was play time, then there was settled time.
Along with these easy techniques, Moss’ family followed our Virtual Puppy School to teach Moss not to bite (we have many bite inhibition techniques) as well as all of his basic commands like Leave It, Stay, Wait, Heel and more.
None of these techniques are hard or take much time, but all of them can make a huge difference in helping you achieve a calm pup that’s so easy to have around!
Need help with how to train your pup?
If you’re raising a puppy (or about to get one – exciting!!), make sure you check out our Virtual Puppy School. We cover absolutely everything you need to know about raising and training puppy, with videos showing you exactly what to do week by week to have a beautifully calm, easy, well-behaved dog for life. We cover all the basic commands, preventing behaviour issues, encouraging calm behaviour, house training, biting & nipping and so much more.
It’s worth the effort now to save the hassle down the track!