The young pit bull mix zoomed around the room at top speed, her face in a wide play grin, her tail tucked far under her butt.
She slammed into my legs, nearly knocking me over despite the bent-knee stance I adopted when I saw her coming.
She ricocheted off me and smashed into my coworker Zoe, jumping up towards Zoe’s face, her nails gripping Zoe’s leg and raking down her pants.
This dog needed some help. She wasn’t aggressive, but she wasn’t going to get adopted very quickly acting like this. Even the active hikers of Colorado don’t like high energy dogs with no manners.
Learning how to calm a hyperactive dog is a skill that many dog trainers learn early on – but it’s not easy. Do you just try to exhaust the dog, and run the risk of creating an endurance super-athlete? Or do you just lock the dog away and hope they get better when they’re older? Will hiring a dogwalker fix it? What’s an owner to do?
Before we go into how to calm a hyperactive dog, let’s get some terminology straight. Not all dogs with boundless energy are rude, pushy creatures. And not all dogs that are rude and pushy are super-athletes.
Highly aroused dogs are just that – they’re over-aroused by stimuli that other dogs would take in stride. It’s not a permanent state of being, it’s just shorthand for what these dogs are doing at a point in time.
Highly aroused dogs often have a wild, almost panicked look in their eye – they’re over the top and out of control. These dogs aren’t able to think through their excitement.
Bella, the dog described at the beginning of the article, exemplified this perfectly in the shelter.
High arousal dogs often…
In the shelter, we often call this “kennel crazy” as it often gets worse over time with a lack of outlets. In the home, these dogs can be very hard to handle and not very fun to be around.
These dogs aren’t always high energy – they might go absolutely crazy for just a few minutes, and then be exhausted. However, high energy dogs are at a larger risk of becoming high arousal dogs as well. They often exist hand in hand.
Dogs are at a risk of becoming high arousal when…
They’re not given enough exercise for their breed, age, and personality
They were never taught basic obedience cues
They are deprived of social interaction
They are exposed to a situation that’s far too exciting for them
These are the dog’s we’ll focus on today, because they’re the troublemakers. Many high energy dogs are apt to become highly aroused – but it’s not a 1:1 relationship.
High energy dogs have a ton of energy. These dogs may still be polite, but they’re athletes. My border collie is a high energy dog. We’ll run 19 miles, come home, take a nap, and I’ll wake up to a plush toy on my chest, a wagging tail, and an eager look. He’s always ready for more.
High energy dogs…
Think of it this way: high arousal is a temporary state of being, whereas high energy is an energy level that’s often connected to certain breeds and biology.
My dog Barley is a great example of a dog that is naturally high energy and – because of this – would be more inclined to slip into high arousal states, were it not for the training we’ve worked on and the plentiful physical and mental outlets I provide him with.
His training helps him think through his excitement and energy to behave like a polite dog, not a crazy combination of nails, teeth, and legs.
This article will be primarily focused on techniques to help high arousal dogs, but the principles can also apply to high energy dogs. Just keep in mind that they aren’t mutually exclusive! From now on to avoid confusion, we’ll call all of these dogs “hyperactive.”
Both high energy and high arousal dogs need training, physical exercise, and mental enrichment. Without giving your dog adequate exercise and mental stimulation, no amount of training will succeed. And without training, all of that exercise and enrichment will just create a super-athletic brainiac of a dog with no manners.
Hyperactive dogs need what trainers call an “off switch.” This means that your goal isn’t just to give them exercise, but to teach them how and when to calm down. This is one of the most important things for calming hyperactive dogs.
We often only work on revving our dogs up, then get upset when they don’t seem to know how to relax. It’s important to understand that dogs don’t naturally know how and when to relax. Without putting some work into training, there’s no way for your adolescent dog to know that it’s ok to go totally crazy at the park with his buddies, but that he’s supposed to lie calmly on the carpet in the next room when guests are over.
Teaching your dog how to calm down, or “installing an off switch” is an important method for teaching your dog how and when to chill out!
Here’s how it’s done.
There are plenty of different ways to calm a hyperactive dog. Luckily for you, many of these “off switch” games are easy to play and involve treats. I recommend doing one of these per day if you’re dealing with a hyperactive dog in your home.
Mat training is my all-time favorite way to teach a dog to settle down. It’s a multi-step process of teaching your dog to lie down on a “mat” and stay there no matter what’s going on around her.
There are several ways to teach a dog to settle down on their mat, but my personal favorite was written by Dr. Karen Overall.
This video is also helpful on first teaching your dog to lie down on her mat:
Pioneered and popularized by dog training extraordinaire Susan Garrett, the It’s Yer Choice game helps dogs learn to make choices to get what they want. Your dog learns to look to you for permission to get what she wants. It’s an amazing framework and super-easy game to start playing!
Here’s what it looks like in action:
This is one of my dog Barley’s favorite games. Once your dog knows a few basic obedience cues really well, you can play Ready, Set, GO!
Start by revving your dog up. Barley and I play tug, but others might wrestle or chase their dog. Whatever gets her all amped up. Don’t get her too riled up on the first try, but you’ll be able to increase the difficulty later.
Start the game by saying, “Ready, Set, GO!” and begin the amp up process. After a few seconds, say, “Ready, Set, DOWN!” or “Ready, Set, SIT!”
Your dog might hesitate or keep trying to play with you – that’s ok. Just become supremely boring until your dog complies. As soon as she listens to your cue, start the game again by saying, “Ready, Set, GO!” Your dog will quickly learn how to stop playing and respond to a cue as fast as possible. This helps her learn to think even when she’s excited!
If you don’t like training with treats but love teaching your dog all day long, you’ll love Nothing in Life is Free.
There are lots of things that you do every day for your dog that she loves. The idea of Nothing in Life is Free is that your dog will learn to sit to “say please” for these things.
For example, Barley loves walks, eating, playing tug, and getting to go through doors. So our rule is that in order for Barley to get his leash clipped on, he’s got to sit and stay sitting. If he doesn’t sit, no leash. If he doesn’t sit at doors, the doors don’t open. If he doesn’t sit, I don’t feed him his dinner.
You can bet your bottom dollar that your dog will get much better at manners really quickly! It will also teach your dog that barking, jumping, or otherwise being rude does not get them what they want!
If you’re dealing with a hyperactive dog, your first job is to teach your dog how to chill out. Dogs don’t come with a playbook of how to live with humans, so it’s your job to do the hard work of teaching Fifi to live happily in your home!
Dogs come with a wide range of baseline personalities, energy levels, and needs. All dogs need both mental and physical exercise, but the exact need can vary based on your individual canine.
If you’ve got the good fortune of owning both a German Shorthaired Pointer and a Pug, you know that they don’t have the same energy needs. This is why it’s important to consider a dog’s breed before adopting a dog – if you know you don’t have time for daily runs and daily training games, maybe a high energy herding breed isn’t the best choice for you.
The same applies to mental exercise as well. Even the Afghan Hound, which is famously slow-learning, needs a bit of a mental challenge every day. That said, be fair and don’t expect your Afghan Hound and your Border Collie to complete the same challenges.
Hyperactive dogs need more exercise and stimulation than the average bear. Wearing them out mentally and physically is also key for teaching your dog the off switch cues mentioned earlier – you’ll never get your dog to chill out if she’s not under-exercised and under-stimulated.
As your dog’s caretaker, it’s your responsibility to see that your dog gets enough mental and physical exercise daily. Whether this means hiring a Rover or Wag walker every day or signing up for canine obstacle course classes, your dog relies on you for opportunities to burn off that excess physical and mental energy.
But what to do if you’ve already got a Green Beret level athlete with Einstein intelligence in your home?
Create a plan. I don’t have a specific plan each and every day, but my daily goal is to give my super dog Barley at least three different types of mental and physical exercise per day. This helps me stay on track even when I’m working a 10-hour day or otherwise feeling overly busy.
We use a combination of the mental and physical exercises listed below. If you’re more of a strict plan person, then come up with a plan and a goal! Sign up for a 5k with your dog or make it a goal to teach her one new trick per week. This will help you stay on track. Don’t forget to reward yourself at specific milestones, too!
Get Help. If you don’t have the energy of a 23-year-old marathon runner but still own a 3-year-old border collie, it’s ok! Just get help. I used Wag to get Barley a few emergency walks this week when I was laid low by a nasty head cold. Whether you get friends, family, or hired help for daily, monthly, or as-needed help, the extra hands are necessary. It takes a village to exercise a hyperactive dog!
Get Creative. Having a social life and being busy doesn’t mean you can’t exercise your dog. Barley learns new tricks while I’m on the phone, practices mat training while I cook dinner, and gets to play tug during the Game of Thrones theme music. We find little bits of time to make his life more exciting.
Getting your dog enough mental and physical exercise will meet her basic needs. Until you meet those basic needs, you’ll never succeed at calming a hyperactive dog.
Some of my favorite ideas for mental and physical exercise include:
Tug. Playing tug is a great way to build the bond with your dog and burn some excess energy.
Fetch. If you’re blessed enough to live with a fetch maniac, use it. There are days where I simply don’t have the time or energy for an 8 mile run with Barley, so we just go play fetch instead. He loves it, and it doesn’t exhaust me for the rest of the day!
Flirt Poles. These underutilized toys are amazing. Flirt poles are basically a giant fishing pole with a squeaky toy on the end. Your dog will leap, chase, bite, and catch the toy. It’s an amazing way to exercise a dog with just one hand in a tiny space – and your dog doesn’t have to like fetch!
Training Games. Try teaching your dog something new using treats (see our list of suggested training treats if you need ideas for high-reward goodies). Training is great mental exercise and is an amazing bonding activity. If you teach your dog things like “up,” “down,” “over,” and “under,” you can even make training into physical exercise! Try some of these training games that teach impulse control as a way to get started.
Walks. Plain old walks are a great way to wear out your dog. I use my walks as a training opportunity to work on leash skills, practice ignoring squirrels, and perfect our sit/down/stay/shake basics in new environments.
Sniffing Games. One of my all-time favorite games to play with Barley is the “search” game. He waits in the bathroom while I hide tiny bits of hotdog around the apartment. When I let him out, it’s his job to sniff out all of the treats. It’s incredibly easy for me, and is a great mental workout for him. We make it harder by working in larger spaces or even outside!
Runs. I love running – but not all humans (or all dogs) agree with me. If you and your dog are new to running, just mix in 2 minutes of jogging at the beginning of every walk. If one or both of you are more experienced, then set a goal of a 5k, 10k, or even full marathon.
Barley motivated me to complete my first marathon and did almost every single training run with me! We both got into excellent shape and are much closer after those long hours of pounding pavement together. Talk to your vet (and doctor) before embarking on something as ambitious as a marathon!
Hikes. Off-leash hiking is an amazing outlet for well-behaved dogs. Make sure your dog has an excellent “come when called” response and that the area you’re in allows off-leash dogs. If off-leash isn’t an option, hit the trails with a waist leash or long line to keep your dog safe while you both explore nature. Let your dog stop and sniff, eye up the squirrels, and roll in the mud – it’s a huge mental release for your dog to just get out and be a dog.
Puzzle Toys. I would die without my puzzle toys. Maybe literally. Barley has quite the collection of them, and it’s how I keep him mentally engaged when I have no time. I just chuck his kibble into a puzzle toy, chuck the toy into the crate, and leave them both for the day. It’s not the most bond-building or ceremonious of the exercise options, but life happens. I love my puzzle toys – and so does Barley.
The bottom line is this: if you don’t take care of your dog’s basic exercise needs, you’ll end up with a hyperactive dog on your hands. And if you don’t teach your dog how to behave in human society, you’ll end up with a rude dog. Use a combination of training, relaxation games, and exercise to calm your hyperactive dog.
Do you have a hyperactive dog? How do you calm his crazy energy? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.