By Sean O’Shea
I think it can be easy to miss this key component of success with your dog. Many folks confuse the state of arousal with excitement, happiness, or a dog being a dog. But here’s the thing, arousal, when you’re trying to get your dog to make his best choices, is usually the enemy.
Check out this analogy. A perfectly nice couple of guys go the football game on Sunday. These guys have nice jobs, nice families, are well respected, and well liked. Good people. Once they get on the road to the game they start to get excited. They pump some loud music, start talking a little louder, and are getting excited about the game. They both notice the little lift they’re feeling. Almost a little high, a little care free, a little, just a little I-don’t-a-damn attitude creeping in. It feels good and a teeny bit dangerous. But just a teeny bit.
They arrive at the game, grab their seats, and are swept up in the energy of the crowd and the anticipation of the game.
And then, kick off!
Boom, the adrenaline stars to flow, our family men’s voices become louder, the excitement more intense, and now we’ve got some physical gestures as well. We’re pumping hands and standing up periodically to add emphasis and show our commitment to the moment.
Next thing you know, someone in front of our lovely gents says something inappropriate. It isn’t directed directly at our guys, it’s just a general silly outburst, but due to all the excitement and arousal our guys are feeling, their better judgement lapses for just a moment and one of them shouts back at the other commenting gentlemen. It doesn’t take long for a shouting match to erupt, and soon enough there’s an actual physical altercation. No one is seriously injured, but the whole thing is pretty ugly, and both our family men and the other man who made the initial comment are all secured by security folks and later handed over to the police.
Now how did we get here? How did our nice, respectable, good guys end up making such bad choices and getting themselves in so much trouble? Arousal. They didn’t even see it coming. It was like a a slow storm that gradually enveloped them and next thing they knew they were acting like they wouldn’t normally act, talking like they wouldn’t normally talk, and getting into behavior that they wouldn’t normally get into.
It’s the same with our dogs. Only our dogs don’t have the same social pressure we do to comport ourselves in a certain fashion. (Because they live within a human structure not a dog structure.) And they tend to move into this space of arousal very, very quickly. We humans tend to need more ammo and time to get lifted up (not all of us though!), but our dogs are like hair triggers. They only need a little push to go boom! And many dogs live in the state of arousal most of their lives (always on edge about every little sound, every new passerby, every dog that barks etc). So pushing them into a higher state of it is very easy.
This is why we focus so much on the structured walk/heel, thresholds, duration place command, state of mind training overall, and correcting inappropriate overly excited/aroused/trigger happy behavior – both in the house and on the walks. These are all geared towards removing/combatting arousal. All these exercises or interactions are to calm the mind, slow the mind, relax the mind.
What we’re shooting for is much more than obedience work, we’re shooting for creating the mental landscape of more calm, more relaxed, more chilled out, and definitely less arousal. Because if we create all these elements, we create an environment for our dogs to make their best choices, share their best behavior, and be their best selves, without needing constant supervision or management. Eventually it becomes more of a default.
Just remember, the dogs you see out on walks that are all fired up, barking, pulling, spinning, biting the leash, or the ones you see in the house (yours perhaps??:)) that bark at everything that moves, anyone who walks in, or any change in the environment, are very much like our nice gentleman at the football game who got themselves into trouble. They’re likely suffering from arousal stemming from not enough help from us about what to do with it.
They’re stuck at the never ending football game.
Let’s help them find their seat, relax, and watch in a more civilized (and enjoyable for all) fashion.
P.S. Arousal and excitement do have their places. Play and fun time, or high action work like frisby, fetch etc are all great times for letting it all hang out. Just make sure you have both worlds to offer your dog. :)
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