Case Study: Over-Excited, Frustrated, Habituation and Freedom

Over-excited Labradoodle
© Theo Stewart

Dylan is an enthusiastic, friendly young dog, if a little over-excited at times. He is beautiful, but someone coming to house is a very exciting thing for the young 16-month-old Labradoodle. When I arrived the lady was doing her best to control him. She repeatedly told him to sit and stay on a mat just round the corner where he couldn’t see me.

She was fighting a losing battle. It’s hard to control a dog that is so over-excited. In this state of mind he can’t be expected to exercise much self-control. He calmed down quite quickly however.

At home they find him no problem at all as, like many of us, they have few callers apart from family.

The problems they are having with Dylan are due to his being so over-excited when they are out. Every person he sees he wants to greet. Every dog he sees he wants to play with. Sadly for him, he is thwarted. For control, the lady has to walk him with a Halti which he hates. This is the way she stops him pulling.

Frustration

Dylan deals surprisingly well with what must be quite a high level of frustration. All he wants is more freedom. He wants to sniff and to be able to get to other dogs in particular. They can’t trust him to come back, so he gets no opportunity to run off lead. When a dog approaches, the lady holds his head halter tightly. This is the only way she can keep him beside her without him pulling her over.

When younger, Dylan used to go to daycare a couple of times a week where he could play with other dogs. Unfortunately, due to his not being castrated (they don’t want this), daycare will no longer have him. It’s a big ask now to expect the friendly dog to be calm when he does see a potential playmate. It’s also possible that playing unchecked with other dogs at the daycare may have encouraged uncontrolled, over-excited play with other dogs. This can happen.

Over-excited when seeing people

It’s the same problem with people. The fewer he encounters, the more over-excited and reactive he will become. They are an exciting novelty. The first thing they will do to help him is to cut down on things that wind him up and make him over-excited at home. They will replace them with activities that get him to use his brain and calm him down instead. Things like working for his food, hunting and brain games. The second is to start all over again with walks. Currently he’s forced to walk beside them. He’s trapped on a Halti that restricts his movement and which the lady tightens when a dog or person approaches. How frustrating that must be for him. It is nerve-wracking for the lady who isn’t enjoying walks either. If she is nervous, worried or cross – Dylan will get the message.

Better equipment, different technique

They will now get better equipment. The lady should feel just as safe if he wears a harness with training lead attached in two places, back and chest, instead of head halter. They will start with two or three daily short walks near to home, allowing lots of sniffing. They will keep the lead long and loose.

If a person or dog appears they will increase distance immediately. The lady will also work on Dylan’s fear of large or noisy vehicles. If someone appears and she finds herself getting anxious, she will go back home.

Now, with Dylan more comfortable and the lady herself feeling she’s beginning to enjoy walks also, she can start to work on approaching people and dogs as planned. This will involved increasing distance. She will teach him to stay calm, using either food or giving him his beloved ball to carry. With a long line, they will work hard on his recall so that he gets some freedom.

Habituation

All this work actually doesn’t address the real reason he gets so over-excited at seeing people and dogs. He needs habituating. Friendly Dylan needs to meet plenty of people and plenty of dogs. When they are no longer such a novelty he will be sufficiently calm for the couple to teach him better manners.

The gentleman made a good suggestion. They will go back to taking him places with them as they did when he was a puppy. They can take him into town and they can sit outside cafes. Like many dogs, Dylan can cope with crowds better than occasional people and dogs.  More exposure will get to the root of his over-excitement. More on habituation here.

NB: For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are inaccurate, outdated, aversive or not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in North America. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in the British Isles and Europe.

 

About Theo Stewart

I work as a canine behaviour trainer - a sort of dog supernanny! I am a VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer) and a member of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers amongst many other things. I was originally involved in 'old-school' dog training and am a cross-over (I'm no spring chicken sadly). The advantages of having personally experienced both force and force-free methods is that I have proved over and over how much more effective and permanent positive methods are.

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