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What is Overarousal in Dogs?

Written by Anna Hollisey


Super excited aussie puppy playing in the yard

Arousal is a mental and physical state which dogs enter in response to external stimuli. Adrenaline prompts the production of cortisol, which causes symptoms like a raised heart rate, fast breathing, and dilated pupils. Overarousal can be caused by positive or negative stressors and could also be described as ‘hyper-alertness’. 

When dogs become aroused, their endocrine (hormone) and nervous systems start working overtime. You’ll notice that they seem alert or tense with energy. It can affect their brains so that they seem to forget all training and behavior! But what type of event causes overarousal? Here are some examples which could be triggering your dog’s stress.

  • Another dog – whether they’re a threat or a playmate. 
  • Arrival of visitors.
  • Cues that they’ve learned indicate stressful situations – for example, the word ‘car’, or the sight of their bath towel.
  • A new environment for a walk.
  • Excessive indoor play – especially if they’re tired. 

The release of adrenaline (epinephrine) causes a spike in cortisol, the stress hormone. This affects the nervous system, pausing digestion, raising your dog’s blood pressure, and increasing their heart rate. 

This response has a function: in a dangerous situation, the dog is alert and ready to act. But cortisol can also prevent the dog from thinking clearly – you’ll notice that they become more difficult to control and may not remember to moderate their behavior or biting pressure.

You probably know how your dog looks when they get overexcited! Dogs can:

  • Become mouthy and bite too hard
  • Lose control of their impulses
  • Have dilated pupils (aka ‘spaceship eyes’)
  • Bark excessively (generally in a joyful way – they’re releasing energy)
  • Become boisterous with other dogs
  • Show physiological signs of adrenaline release: increased heart rate, panting, trembling, pacing, or spinning in circles. 

Some dogs become unable to control their arousal, finding it difficult to settle; this can cause problems, like biting or fighting. That’s because the state of arousal is essentially a ‘fight or flight’ response, with the dog’s body primed to strike. 

It’s a trait especially evident during adolescence, but your dog can (and most dogs will) learn to re-center. For advice about reducing arousal in your dog, keep reading.

When your dog’s aroused, the level of stress hormone soars; it clouds their judgment and causes them to do unpredictable things. One such thing is forgetting to practice bite inhibition. This means that they can deliver a powerful bite in the heat of a moment. 

The signs of overarousal (including things like leash-biting, mouthing, and jumping) are undoubtedly more common in young and adolescent dogs (up to the age of 3). With training, you can expect them to learn to moderate these behaviors. 

So what you probably want to know now is…  

Tire them out so they calm down?  No. Most dog trainers agree that additional exercise isn’t the right approach for calming a hyperactive or over-aroused dog. If you’re constantly exercising them, throwing their toys, and trying to tire them out, you could be causing a prolonged spike in cortisol production, which means they’re stressed for longer periods. 

Instead, you should concentrate on developing their skills in focusing and settling.  

It’s important not to punish or scold your dog when they’re over-aroused. Far better is to help them learn how to become calm. 

Of course, they won’t learn overnight. It is a skill which usually develops with maturity, but you can help your dog to hone it. By keeping training sessions short and sticking to a predictable routine, you enable your dog to expect and embrace quiet periods during the day. 

Here are a few things you can do to keep your overexcitable dog a bit more chilled:

  • Establish set times for exercise and training. 
  • Avoid over-exciting places, like the dog park.
  • Teach your dog to ignore their triggers – for instance, if they become overexcited when they hear a car pull up, ask someone to do it repeatedly and reward your dog for staying calm. 
  • If your dog is young, ensure that they have toys for indoor entertainment, but don’t allow them to continually demand you to engage with them. 
  • Instead, between walks or training, ignore them when they throw toys at your feet. 
  • Have quiet times. It’s incredibly important that your dog learns how to rest – ideally not forced to stay in a crate and, if necessary, right at your side – human touch can be calming.  

For most dogs, sniffing will calm their stress response and provide a reason for complete focus, clarifying intent and brain work. It’s the ultimate de-stressing tool. 

So try this trick to calm your overexcited dog (when they’re biting on the leash or jumping excitedly): take a handful of your dog’s favorite treats from your pocket and scatter them on the ground. They’ll use this focused activity to re-center and then bring their attention back to you. 

Being in a regular state of hyperarousal can cause chronic anxiety and overactive fear responses. It can also cause problems for pet owners, who expect their dogs to be reliably well-behaved and trustworthy. 

For these reasons, your vet might prescribe a medication to treat hyperarousal, such as Fluoxetine, or a complementary treatment like pheromone spray or L-theanine. Want to keep it natural? Our supplement, Harmony/products/harmony, is designed to support dogs who are stressed or anxious. 

Did you know? Diet affects your dog’s brain activity – this is supported by a wealth of scientific research. One such study found that DHA-rich fish oil significantly improved puppies’ memory and immune functions. It’s logical to assess your pup’s diet – and try a more nutrient-rich food, or a targeted supplement – before starting them on a medication. 

Further Reading

Learn how to help your dog settle into a routine in episode 8/learn/education/key-steps-to-make-a-happier-healthier-dog/home-routines-for-dogs of our dog management course (free to watch). If you’re thinking about trying a supplement, we’ve covered the benefits of L-theanine/learn/dog-supplements/the-benefits-of-l-theanine-for-dogs on our blog. And if you suspect your dog suffers from anxiety caused by overarousal, here are some of the most popular anxiety remedies for dogs./learn/dog-health/anxiety-products-for-dogs