Managing Emotional Arousal
By Kama Brown
Emotional arousal causes a myriad of unwanted behaviors in dogs. Behaviors that are commonly thought of as dominance displays usually fit into the category of behaviors caused by over-arousal. These behaviors include jumping up, nipping hands and arms, mounting, too much biting of the necks and back legs of other dogs, high pitched barking directed at one dog or person, an increase in low growling during play, muzzle punching, teeth clacking, hyperactivity, rearing up during play, shoving and barreling into other dogs or people, and running tight circles around other dogs, to name a few.
Karen B. London put it best when she said, “Just like some children, some dogs come hard-wired to spiral into a state of emotional overload in seemingly low-key situations. Other dogs, especially adolescents, haven’t yet perfected their emotional thermostats, and need their owners to help them learn to keep their emotions in check.”
Learning to keep their emotions in check is somewhat of a learning curve for most dogs. In a group daycare setting, the safest (for staff and dogs) available options are going to revolve around keeping arousal levels low. Using diffusion techniques, interrupting focus, and utilizing the environment to distract the dogs from each other are easy skills to learn and cheap to put into practice. When these techniques are used daily, the more often a dog visits, the more practice they will have at learning self-control.
Most dog trainers only recommend group daycare one or two times a week because the risk is that a dog will learn to be in high arousal around other dogs in all situations, which can make other types of training difficult. Using these methods allows dogs to benefit from daily care in a group setting.
Disengaging dogs from arousing situations commonly means keeping them busy doing something else. This is tricky because the “something else” can also cause over-arousal. Adding to the complication is the fact that most adolescent dogs can remain in high arousal for long periods of time just by being in the presence of other dogs.
Of course, nothing with dogs is ever one-size-fits-all; so many times an activity that calms one dog down will stimulate another. For this reason, I don’t suggest throwing toys, running, or anything that encourages fast movements. Playing fetch may help two or three of the dogs focus on the activity, but it’s likely to cause other dogs to nip at the running dogs.
A nice level of arousal is okay and even encouraged; it’s normal for dogs to feel excitement and slight stress when doing fun things. Arousal most often becomes a problem when it’s allowed to go on too long, which will escalate play behaviors to the point of antagonizing behaviors and cause aggression and reactivity.
1)Keep three or four spray bottles full of interesting scents.
I typically keep deer urine, cooked hot dog water, and rotting wood. While walking slowly around the perimeter of the yard, spray the scent a few times to get the dogs sniffing. Sniffing is an automatic diffusion behavior and will almost always keep dogs engaged with the ground long enough to calm them down and reset the group play at a much calmer level.
If none of the dogs aggressively guard food, I will do this with small pieces of hot dogs or liver in lieu of water vapors. Though, both tactics work extremely well. The longer the dogs are sniffing, the calmer and more worn out they will be. Dogs who keep their heads up, scanning the yard for movement and play are likely to become aroused quickly and easily.
2) Separate the space into three yards and divide the dogs into groups.
We have an intense dog yard, a low-key dog yard, and an enrichment yard. Dividing dogs by size is good in most cases, though I’ve witnessed quite a few small dogs coming from other daycares that were injured while playing with other small dogs. A 10-month-old Shetland sheepdog and a 10-month-old West Highland terrier may be similarly sized, but their temperaments are usually on the opposite spectrum of what they feel is appropriate play.
Use the extra yard for enrichment and periodically rotate the dogs that quickly escalate into the unwanted arousal behaviors into this yard during group play. This will create necessary breaks for those dogs while keeping the group dynamic at an appropriate level of play.
The enrichment yard is a really fun aspect of a dog daycare that allows owners to give their dog experiences they never have the chance to. The enrichments in the yard should be changed often to offer new surprises for the dogs and to encourage return visits. A typical set up would include 5-10 different elements.
In our enrichment yard, we always include a water element in nice weather such as a sprinkler, play pool, or water bowl full of toys. We always keep a very secure chicken or duck coop year round. If we have dogs that can’t handle the visual aspect of chickens, we put them in the top portion of the coop and allow the dogs to simply sniff the chicken’s area, which they love just as much.
We offer the enrichment area to local Barn Hunt competitors one weekend a month, which leaves a nice ratty scent behind in the yard. We keep a very small compost bin on one side of the yard with bird and squirrel feeders on the fence posts around it. We add thick pieces of boards set on cinder blocks at different heights; for going over, under and in-between. We create mazes out of cheap fencing with some dead ends for them to puzzle their way out of. As long as the yard is kept as creative and interesting as possible, it will be a big win for customers and canines both.
If I had to create this in a synthetic grass yard, I would bring in piles of leaves, branches and straw bales; add tunnels, new scents, mazes, ball pits, upside down kiddy pools to walk on, sand boxes, and anything else I found in the woods or local hardware store. As long as it’s interesting, it will work perfectly.
3) Begin walking the perimeter to keep the dogs focused on movement.
Dogs tend to arouse easily when left to their own devices so keep them moving around with you. Clapping hands and calling them over while walking will usually get even the most hyper dogs to join in on the walk. Many times I’ll just say, “okay, let’s go!” and the repeat dogs immediately follow me while the newbies catch up.
If none of these options are available, simply remove the dog from the situation and provide enrichment toys in their kennel. We often play a few scent detection or K9 nose work games and refer the owner to sign up for one-on-one daycare sessions.
Dogs generally need practice mastering one-on-one socialization and group socialization separately. This means the dog must learn what may be appropriate for two dogs to do together will not be appropriate for fifteen dogs to do together.
Two correctly paired dogs can happily and safely remain aroused during play for about 10- 20 minutes to their benefit. Dogs should take natural breaks during play, however, if they don’t, it’s important to create breaks by offering the dogs a distraction. This can be as simple as calling them and walking so they follow you or as complicated as training them both to settle at individual stations.
Being able to properly manage the arousal levels in a group setting prevents injuries, both canine and staff related. Daycare counselors can create situations to disengage, diffuse, and lower arousal in both the group and two-dog setting. The two dogs setting should always be an extra service at an extra cost, as it requires more expertise and dog handling experience from the daycare attendant. We charge twice as much per day for dogs who come to learn how to socialize one-on-one, while giving them ¼ of the time to socialize.
Aversive events tend to increase emotional arousal. Spraying dogs in the face with water, blowing an air horn, leash jerking, collar shocking, and forcing them into stationary positions will almost always elevate arousal. The dog may seem calmer because they will stop moving as much, but their mental state will remain on high arousal, with the added stress of avoiding the punishment. For these reasons, we do not recommend startling, scaring, punishing, or hurting dogs that are in a state of emotional arousal.