Top 5 Tips to Calm Overexcitable Dogs
Have you got a boisterous, bouncy, delightful but somewhat over-the-top dog?
If your puppy or dog is hyperactive and prone to jumping up, pulling on the lead or being unable to settle down – you’ve come to the right place.
Dogs that are hyperactive or overexcitable can sometimes have a hard time distinguishing when it’s time to jump and scramble and play and race around, and when they need to be a bit more settled and show some manners. This is known as impulse control.
Here I’ve put together five easy, gentle ways you can encourage your dog to be so much more CALM, without crushing their beautiful spirit! These techniques help with all aspects of dog training, and are a great way to start when you want to start training a hyperactive doggy.
1. Bond Gaze & Zen Sit
This is a very simple little exercise to practise with your dog to help them bond with you. When your dog 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 pull on the lead etc. When your dog gazes into your eyes, it activates oxytocin and dopamine which calms them down and relaxes them.
To teach your dog the bond gaze and Zen Sit, use a clicker and high value food rewards. Ask your dog to Sit, click and reward. If your dog looks up at you naturally, click and reward. To encourage your dog 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 the INSTANT your dog looks up at you, even if only for a second, 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 dog. This should become the go-to way your dog 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.
2. 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 vagus 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 dog’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 dogs to be more calm. Here’s a blog with instructions on how to teach Zen Down.
3. Nothing in Life is Free
This is a useful training principle that helps you establish your bond with your dog, and communicates to your dog that you are in charge of access to anything they like or want – food, your attention, freedom, off-lead time, play etc. Dogs prioritise their key relationships largely based on who controls the resources!
You reward your dog 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 dog when they are doing desired behaviours or commands, you will quickly quash inappropriate overexcited behaviours.
So if you’re wanting to teach your hyperactive dog some better manners, start by always asking your dog to do something before they get something as you go about your day – 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 dog 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 leading to calmer behaviour. This is a very important technique to understand!
When starting training, I recommend for the first 2-3 months, you always ask your dog to do something simple for a reward. That way your dog 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 dog to respect and be more calm around others. So if a dog is too boisterous with your young kids, get your young kids feeding your dog their meals (with supervision) & giving your dog treats when dog is nice and calm (controlling food resource), and spending time playing and connecting with the dog (controlling contact resource).
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. A chain is better as your dog can’t chew through it! It helps recreate the concept of a “den”, a safe, contained space for dog to retreat to. It provides physical control that allows you to settle your dog down. Your dog will come to love it and automatically settle down when on the clip station if it’s introduced properly, which makes it an incredibly useful tool when you need your dog to calm down for a bit (e.g. when visiting someone’s home or at a café!).
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 dog 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 dog, you can pop the dog on the clip station to settle down. Your dog 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 dog is calm and settled there. Soon you’ll notice your dog starts to retreat to this spot by choice!
5. Appropriate Exercise, Stimulation & Play
Dogs absolutely need exercise, stimulation and play, so part of working with an overexcitable dog is making sure they do have an appropriate level of these things! Make sure you’re exercising your dog at an appropriate level for their age and breed, with plenty of time for them to sniff and explore their surroundings. Do training sessions each day with your dog (5-10 minutes, 2 – 3 times a day is ideal) as this really exercises their brain and tires them out beautifully. Play with your dog, and make sure your dog has engaging dog toys available to them.
If your dog 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 dog play and stimulation is essential if we expect our dog to be able to be calm at other times. If you’re unsure about how much your dog should be getting, do a bit of research online about an appropriate level for your dog’s breed and age.
Need More Help?
If you can’t seem to make progress or even get your dog settled enough to listen and respond to this training, come and take a look at our Virtual Training Schools. We have interactive courses for dogs of all ages, with videos showing you step-by-step what to do to train your dog in all the basics, AND correct any challenging behaviour issues. I’ll be on hand to help you through it and answer your questions, every step of the way!