Arousal Is The Enemy

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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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7 comments
  1. Myra said:

    So how do I teach my dog not to get aroused when she sees another dog when I walk her? She’s great at the park & with other dogs otherwise but whenever she sees a dog on leash she reacts. I’ve tried leave it! Going the other way, putting her in a down, etc. But she still reacts. I try to avoid other dogs when I can , but sometimes you just can’t avoid it.

    • ablewebs said:

      I think Sean would recommend the e-collar. You can see how he uses it in many of his videos. You need to condition the dog to the e-collar before using it for this kind of correction, though. So start by teaching come, heel and place (or at least one of these) so the dog understands that the e-collar sensation is coming from you, not another dog. The e-collar de-escalates a dog’s arousal very quickly. But timing is everything. You have to apply the correction the nanosecond your dog shows arousal (e.g., ears go forward, forehead wrinkles, staring/targeting). For my dog, stopping her from looking at her target dogs (out-of-control dogs, puppies, yellow Labs) is key. And I had to use a much higher level (80) on the Dogtra IQ e-collar than her normal working level (40). Note: Once arousal is in full force (snapping, lunging, barking), you can still correct your dog, but you’ve probably lost the chance, in that instance, to create avoidance in the future. And avoidance is what you want!

  2. Carey said:

    Excellent. At the risk of projecting human emotions onto a dog, it seems like that state of arousal would not be a pleasant experience for the dog. It just can’t be fun being completely out of your mind. Add to that having everyone mad at you when you finally regain your senses? Much better to help the dog learn not to lose control in the first place.

  3. ablewebs said:

    Great analogy, Sean! I don’t think most people understand arousal in dogs and your analogy is really helpful in getting folks to realize how it works and how quickly it can turn your dog from “ears back, trotting happily along” to snapping and snarling at a passing dog. As you say, unlike most humans, dogs take very little input to go from a level 2 or 3 arousal to a level 10! As responsible dog owners, we have to be hyper-vigilant and correct our dog in the nano-second arousal starts. It’s pretty much too late once they’ve gone to a level 10! Your videos regularly explain this and show how to deal with it. I wish more dog owners would watch your training videos and listen to your Q&A sessions. My dog’s leash reactivity is diminishing day by day as we practice your techniques. And I want to thank you so much for answering my question on your last Q&A session. I was so happy to hear that I just have to be consistent and keep working on it. I am very patient and persistent, so I know we will be 100% successful. I’m already celebrating all the victories and milestones along the way! My excitement at Lucy’s progress is adding some real juice to my life! lol

  4. Sam Ivy said:

    What a great illustration! I have never thought about it like that before. It does sound a bit stressful and exhausting to feel like that at all times, so I agree it is important to allow our dogs a space to chill and relax, and to teach them how to achieve that.

  5. Marco said:

    Sean, this is a great point and one that I think goes unnoticed by many people as they associate an excited dog with a happy dog.

    Just as our decision making and focus isn’t so good when we’re ‘wired’, the same is true for our four-legged friends. I second Sam, it’s important to make sure we can help them achieve a relaxed state so they can focus at times when it is absolutely necessary.

  6. Hi, i just adopted a new puppy and he’s having some trouble dealing with the environment and arousals. maybe he needs to read this blog! haha

    zack

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