Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

Physical exercise is necessary and healthy for all dogs. However, there are a few common problems we see in client’s dogs who are not exercised properly. Today we’ll discuss one of the biggest problems, overarousal due to exercise, and the myth that you should exercise “crazy” dogs more.

Layla adores lure coursing, and it's great exercise for her, but it also makes her overly aroused.

Arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and emotional control. A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with a fast heartrate and respiration and poor impulse control. He may have dilated pupils or chatter his teeth. He may pant, jump around or on you, or vocalize incessantly. He may become grabby or mouthy. Alternatively, he may become “locked on” to an activity, freezing in place and staring intently at the object of his obsession, spinning in circles, or pacing.

Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Remember that stress is not necessarily bad. When we think of stress, we often think of negative stress, or distress. However, there’s also positive stress, known as eustress. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on are both stressful activities, and your body actually responds to them the same way even though your emotional response to each is different. This point is important for us to understand as it relates to our dogs, because happily exciting events still create a physiological stress response in your dog’s body.

Why does this matter? Stress causes physical changes in the body. When you or your dog become stressed, your body releases certain stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just instantly dissipate. They hang around for awhile (the most commonly quoted length of time is 72 hours, but estimates range from mere hours to an entire week depending on who you ask).

Consider this, then. If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. Consider how you would feel if you won the lottery, rode a rollercoaster, or attended your favorite band’s rock concerts every single day. Our bodies aren’t built for prolonged periods of excitement, even when the excitement is positive.

What does this have to do with our dogs? I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. These dogs are also often victims of the wrong sort of exercise. Exercise that amps your dog up is okay in moderation, but allowing your dog to engage in it every day will likely do more harm than good. This is highly individual, but is most commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs playing fetch every day or highly dog-social and excitable dogs visiting the dog park or daycare regularly.

If this sounds like your dog, there is hope! Cut down on overly arousing activities and replace them with other physical and mental exercise. Save these exciting activities for special times. My dogs both enjoy the flirt pole, but only play with it a few times a month due to how highly aroused they get while chasing it. Layla adores lure coursing above all other activities, but she takes 3 full days to recover after just a few runs after the lure because she becomes so over-the-top waiting for her turn (words cannot describe the bark-scream-screech sound she makes in line). Dobby loves to play fetch, but two days in a row with the chuck-it or frisbee creates a dog who’s not very pleasant to live with.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other common exercise pitfalls as well as some great ways to exercise your dog. Have you ever had to limit an activity your dog adored because it caused him to become too overstimulated? Please share your stories in the comments below!

67 responses to “Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

  1. Pingback: Is a flirt pole appropriate for my dog? - Page 2

  2. Thank you Thank you Thank you. This all makes so much sense, NOW! I have a highly strung and totally ball obsessed 4 year old boy. He is super super intelligent but his obsessive behaviour in ball play does not dissipate. His eyes will dilate and he will go stock still on just seeing a ball in my hand. He can (and has) caught a ball all day long, sleeps for 10 hours straight and then wants to start it all over again. Holding a lead in one hand (walks) and a ball in the other and he will nudge the ball every time. I think I will hide all the balls for a couple of days and start creating some new games. Its so obvious now that this is good stress gone bad and he needs to find another outlet.

    • This made me laugh, because I had a Parsons Jack Russell who was the exact description as your dog….sweet loving dog, but totally obsessed with a ball. Hope he calms down for you as mine eventually did….thanks for evoking the memory of him.

  3. Samantha Hendricks

    Thanks for the interesting read. I have a high drive IPO dog that has just finished 2 months of cage rest due to a carpal bone fracture. At first I thought I would have to keep him stimulated or he would go nuts, but after a while I realised that the more I tried to do whith him, the nuttier he became. In the end putting him on to a low energy diet, proving chew toys, taking him for short on leash walks, and spending time massaging him helped to calm him down much more than trying to find ways of ‘stimulating’ him mentally. Less was in fact more.

  4. UrbanCollieChick

    Thanks but now I definitely need exercise replacements because playing Frisbee just once in a blue can potentially leave you with a dog that loses muscle tone and is too out of shape for the game. Then next thing you know, you have a dog with a torn CCL.

  5. We use to call Brad a screaming banshee, you couldn’t sit quiet anywhere with him, he’s scream the place down/ On a beach he’d either dig a moat round us or leave us with a pile of sticks for a bonfire, he always had to be entertained. I wish I knew then what I know now. Thanks you for sharing this.

  6. Thank you for this post. I have a 11 month old boy, heeler, chow and Catahoula. We adopted him 5 months ago. We cannot play with him at all because he is just like the article describes. The problem is he has enough energy for 5 dogs. We tried to enroll him in agility beceause he can jump 5 ft high and loves to run thru tunnels in the park, etc. That only lasted 1 class. We need help and replacement activites. HELP!!

  7. Thank you so much for this. My husband and I have been arguing this point for years. He is ruining the health of my beautiful , highly intelligent but ball obsessed ten year old border collie bitch. I think he is cruel as this ball throwing activity, as you say, keeps her permanently hyper and often spends hours looking at him or piling toys on him! Very timely article as we are at vets tomorrow for possible crutiate ligament damage! :-((

  8. Really interesting post. Thank you

  9. No more Fly Ball for us! I took an 8 week course, but declined to join the team because…. Well for two reasons, actually. Reason no. 1 was that my dog regressed in her obedience and I didn’t want to work through it. Even though Fly Ball was only 1 time per week, the hassle in degraded behavior was not worth it.

    Reason no. 2: I got too amped up! I could never get to sleep after Fly Ball class. Exhausting!

  10. Great article! I am a trainer and work with a LOT of dogs with all of the above problems. For the last 7 years I have encouraged my students with those dogs to consider “dragging” the conditioning method we use for the sport of weightpulling. I generally recommend 15 to 20 minutes, 3 – 4 times per week of moderate resistance. I is AWESOME how it really effectively in a calm state. Many of my students with reactive, anxious or hyper dogs often drag for 10 minutes before class and find it to be very helpful to create better calmness and focus during class. It is low impact, physically and although it should be done properly with proper equipment, I have never known a dog to be injured in practice or competition. To consider or learn more, please see http://www.APDASports.com

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