Arousal... more than just a 'Herding Trait'?
AROUSAL – WHAT IS IT? WHAT EFFECT DOES IT HAVE ON OUR DOGS?
Arousal is anything that pushes your dog up, triggers adrenaline in the system, fills their bucket. So, it could be excitement, pain, anxiety, fear, itchiness, gastrointestinal upsets, emotional conflict or a combination of all of these.
We need a level of arousal to train and get engagement from our dogs BUT too much takes them OVER THRESHOLD and they can no longer listen - their bucket is full - and we get a lot of unwanted behaviours. Knowing when your dog is too aroused or is heading in that direction is key and is a skill we each need to learn for each dog.
Let me try to give you an example, Beri and I are walking, we see a dog in the distance. The distance is 30m. She is aware of the dog, her adrenaline levels will have gone up - she stares at the dog (aroused) BUT she chooses to turn back to me. I reward her choice and I might help her by asking her to keep walking, and we continue, walking away from the dog. I am then aware that her adrenaline needs to come down so will give her time to sniff, ask her to focus on me as we walk. We then see a jogger. This time he is only 5 metres away, she stops (aroused) I say her name, she turns gets a treat and I ask her to keep walking. This has filled her bucket, has pushed her arousal level up again, and likely higher than it was before. As there probably hasn't been time to empty her bucket from the last trigger of arousal, her bucket is now more full from this 2nd trigger. This is called trigger stacking.
The question I am then asking myself is how many more triggers can she cope with before her bucket overflows? I am going to need greater distance from things because her bucket is more full and need to work on her focus to ensure she doesn't revert to scanning to look for things to react to. So, I will cut my walk short to end BEFORE it is too much for her!!! Too much for her would look like…. Lunging to the end of the lead, barking, not able to focus on me or hear what I am asking her to do! Not good for her, she is learning inappropriate behaviours and behaviours I don’t want her to be practising. Every time she practises this behaviour, it creates a learning history that will mean it will happen more and more often in future. She will start to find these behaviours rewarding – not what we want.
What else might over arousal look like in a home environment? It could be barking, running up and down the fence, nipping visitors arriving and/or leaving, jumping up It could be hiding under tables or in corners, going still and stiff, showing you whale eye (the whites of their eyes). All of these are signs of arousal. Some stem from fear (hiding and whale eye), some from frustration (barking at noises and running up and down the garden fence), some from excitement (nipping and/or jumping at visitors arriving). BUT they are all behaviours that we don’t want to happen in that situation.
What can you do about it? The most important thing to remember is that, once your dog is over aroused, their bucket is too full, they are not going to make good decisions. They need to be taught how to behave in these scenarios, but this needs to be done NOT in these scenarios first so that they can learn an alternative behaviour and then apply it to these situations. If you have a dog like this, you need help to ensure you get the steps right and don’t push your dog too far too soon.
So, keep your dog on a lead if they run after joggers until you have worked with them and they are able to ignore them and listen to you; keep your dog on a lead with visitors arriving until they can sit calmly when visitors arrive or put them behind a gate whilst visitors come in, wait until they are calm, then bring them out, on a lead and reward them for being calm.
Thinking in arousal, which is what is needed for dogs that don’t make the good decisions when aroused, needs to be taught patiently, calmly, with rewards so they know when they get it right and with an experienced behaviourist or trainer to guide you through. Don’t put it down to the breed, or a herding trait or anything else that is just an excuse for inappropriate behaviour. Get help quickly and it will stop being a problem. Leave it and it will get worse.
Ainsley Procter, DipCABT (RQF- Level 6)
Certified COAPE Animal Behaviourist
Dog Trainer member of APDT UK, 01382
Member of ICAN, CAB
Member of CAPBT