These days it is so wonderful that we have the opportunity to involve our dogs in so many of our daily activities. In years gone by, dogs often led a life that lacked healthy stimulation and enrichment. Where a dog might exist in a backyard, without appropriate exercise, mental stimulation or socialisation, and when this happened it had the potential to invite a series of very complex behavioural issues.
Now that we know better, in a bid to not be that “owner of yesteryear”, we see plenty of people taking the opposite approach in order to give their dogs the best in life. Without intention, they may now be overcompensating and dogs can become overstimulated, resulting in a whole different set of problems altogether.
To put it into perspective, when we were children, we were taught to “just be”. To sit at a table in a restaurant, to be in the car and look out the window, that there were times when it was needed that I relax and “just be” in the moment. Times and parenting have now changed and often, instead of teaching a child how to relax, we choose to stimulate the mind. A child is now often given an electronic device when sitting at a restaurant table; our cars have DVD players to distract from the “boredom” of car travel and some children can be given so much constant stimulation that they ultimately struggle to relax and “just be” in the moment: their minds are overstimulated.
This comparison is also relatable to our dogs. A dog is a predatory animal. It has the innate behavior to have high energy early in the morning and late in the afternoon into early evening. These are hunting hours. During the day a dog relaxes. Conserving energy in preparation to hunt (Just like a lion). Obviously, our domestic dogs do not need to hunt, but they still have this innate behavior of high energy hours and relaxation hours. But these days we often take away their ability to relax and “just be”. We are encouraged to provide constant stimulation.
We are now encouraged to provide interactive puzzles and stimulating toys for our dogs for the day. But shouldn’t our dogs have the ability to switch off and “just be”.? We often look outside and see our high energy working dogs just chilling out. Laying under a bush or under a shady tree. They are relaxing!
But a typical day for a regular dog may look like this;
- Take dog for a walk, meeting and greeting dogs as they pass
- Cool down for a swim at the beach, allowing people to approach and pet your dog
- Taking a car ride to a dog friendly café to catch up with a friend so they can meet your dog
- Quickly stopping by mums to meet her new cat
- Back in the car to run an errand with your dog
- Home for a play in the yard
- Leave the dog for a few hours but ensure that it has interactive and stimulating toys and puzzles
All the while your dog is engaging in countless interactions, trips, environments and meeting new dogs and people. A day of errands is quite the norm for us, but for a dog, this can be SENSORY OVERLOAD.
Sensory receptors in the brain invite certain reactions to physical stimulus in the environment. If a dog sees, hears, smells, touches or tastes, his natural process will trigger a response accordingly. With TOO MUCH stimuli in his space, trying to understand how he should be responding can become confusing and thus create an inappropriate response of manic excitement or even fearful behaviour, due to sheer overwhelm.
While some dogs display resilience, for others, what is occurring is simply too much stimulation.
What does over-stimulation look like?
Because over-stimulation can affect dogs differently, a dog with too much stimuli can display varying behaviour.
- Destructive behaviour
- Compulsive Behaviours
- Anxious Behaviours
- Constant Licking
- Being in a constant state of alert
- Frequently barking, specifically at noises
- Difficulty calming down and relaxing
An overstimulated dog may even retreat and hide.
How to prevent over-stimulation
Just like most things in life, it’s all about balance.
Work on promoting calm behaviour by rewarding your dog when they display a relaxed and content demeanour and teach him/her Impulse Control; that is, the dogs ability to control its urges, impulsiveness and behaviors.
Allow your dog the opportunity to find comfort in some alone time. Maybe, he/she doesn’t always need to go on every adventure you go on.
Enjoy quality time at a quiet park where it’s just you and your dog. Maybe he/she doesn’t need to meet 100 dogs at the beach. After all, shouldn’t YOU be the highlight of his/her life?
Maybe allow your dog time to calm down after one activity before beginning another.
Know that if your dog has regular exercise and quality time interacting and playing with YOU, that is a great way to enrich their mind and life.
With this in mind, when you go out, leave a couple of things for your dog to chew on during the day but keep aside the toys that you are going to use for interaction with him/her. This will result in a better relationship with your dog because they will be excited to play with YOU.
When playing, finish the game before the dog has had enough. Finishing the game a bit earlier will result in a dog that really wants to play again next time you engage them.
Teach your dog the skill of chilling out and relaxing on their mat or bed.
Our words of wisdom come from experience. Both Sarah and Anthea have very high energy dogs, both owning Belgian Malinios. For those unfamiliar with the breed, these dogs are wired. But if you have a high energy dog and you are only concentrating on "exercise, exercise and exercise" the dog can be overstimulated and will also become a fitter more capable animal that still does not have the ability to relax and “just be”.
Lastly and most importantly, don’t mistake a relaxed dog for a bored dog!