What a juicy topic! Since I’m the weirdo that loves working with obstinate, unruly, completely rowdy puppies and canine “teenagers,” I’ve learned some great methods over the years of managing “crazy” and teaching dogs how to self-regulate. In other words, I like the challenge of going from up-your-nose to settles-on-his-own. And today, I’m happy to share some of these tidbits with you.
What It Looks Like
First of all, what does it look like when your dog “loses his s**t?” In dog training terms, we call this going over threshold. This can mean anxiety, fear, or even just arousal and excitement. It applies to a whole variety of different situations, depending on your dog’s triggers, but generally looks like this:
Completely obsessively focused on some sort of stimulus (dog, person, truck, skateboard, squirrel)
Straining on the leash or racing through the house
Ignoring you, not listening, oblivious to your attempts to get his attention back
Barking. Lots of barking. Whining. Noises of all sorts. Some noises you’ve never heard a dog make before. Screeching. Growling. Mewling.
Inability to stop moving. Constantly bobbing and weaving.
Puppy tantrums. “I want DAT! And I want it NOW!”
You get the picture. I recently worked with a dog that became so aroused by car rides that simply standing by the car and not letting her inside sent her into an absolute frenzy. Mind blown. Bye bye, no longer in the building.
So now that we’ve described what it looks like when your dog no longer has a brain, I’d like to discuss what to do in those situations. Then, I’ll explain how to prevent these situations from happening in the first place and creating a calm, balanced dog.
What To Do
The first thing you need to realize is that when your dog goes over threshold, he is no longer in a position to be able to listen to you. He’s in a completely emotional state and is just reacting. Remember when I said “obsessively focused?” You are not even in his peripheral. So, lay aside all of your expectations of your dog listening to anything you say, responding in any way, or just snapping out of it. You need to use different tactics.
First, create distance. This is not an option, so don’t wait for your dog to decide to come with you. Simply start moving away and bring your dog with you. Create as much distance as you need for your dog to notice you again. Even better, put the thing that triggered your dog out of sight. That could mean going around a building, crossing the street, or going behind a car. As you get further away from the stimulus, your dog will begin to come around.
Stuck? Can’t create distance? Try to find a natural barrier nearby that will block your dog’s line of sight. Then, use this tried and proven technique for fixing puppy tantrums.
Take your dog or puppy by the collar and simply hold on. Crouch down (if you can without risk of being pulled over) at your dog’s level, take her by the collar, and simply prevent her from going anywhere. Do not add any pressure to the collar; hold it loosely. She should be able to fidget in place but not take any steps in any direction. This will help to ground your dog, and it also forces them to self-regulate. They can’t go anywhere, and they might get more frustrated in the short-term, but after a couple of minutes they usually begin to settle. Talk low and soothingly to your pup and wait for them to calm down. Don’t add any energy to the situation; just be a rock. When you see signs of relaxation like your dog sitting on his own, lying down, or even taking a nice deep sigh, praise and release the collar.
Kennel your dog. If your dog is crate trained, he is used to being in a calm, relaxed state in the crate since he is usually alone in a quiet room. Placing your rowdy puppy or overly excited dog in the crate will help him learn to self-regulate his energy and facilitate the process of coming down a few energy levels back to a calm state. Once calm, let him out.
How to Teach Your Dog Frustration Tolerance
Ooh boy, is this one of my favorite topics! The reason I have calm, mannerly Border Collies who know how to settle on their own is because I teach them frustration tolerance right from the beginning. What does it mean? It means life; you can’t always get what you want, and you need to be OK with that.
Bringing home a new puppy, most people cringe when they think of those first few nights of puppy howling in the crate. You know how “they” say you shouldn’t let your puppy out? “They” are right. Not only would that teach the puppy that if I howl, I get let out (win!), but it would also defeat the purpose of your puppy learning to tolerate being frustrated and self-manage.
Being able to self-manage, tolerate frustration, and stay calm in crazy situations is exactly what every dog owner wants their dog to do. At agility trials, with all the chaos, excitement, and energy in the air, Mica will calmly rest in his crate and not even fuss. I know that if I needed him to stay at the vet’s office overnight, he would be well able to handle it with minimal stress. If I needed someone to watch him, I’m confident he wouldn’t cause a scene and would mind his manners. He has had a lifetime’s worth of practice with frustration tolerance and it has made him a very calm, well-adjusted dog.
So, how can you help your dog learn this life skill? How can you get more peace and quiet back into your home? Here are some ways:
Set rules and boundaries and stick to them.
Make sure your dog isn’t training YOU by preventing yourself from giving your dog everything HE wants, when he asks for it.
Crate train your dog in a positive way. Huge benefits throughout his life.
Wait for calmness and respect before giving your dog what he wants. This could be his food bowl, going out the front door for a walk, getting into the car, or being let off leash. If your dog is in an excited, over-aroused state right before you give him what he wants, he just got rewarded for being in that state and will more than likely be even more excited the next time. Instead, if he learns he has to calm himself before getting his breakfast, he’ll practice and progress very quickly towards being a calmer dog.
Know what triggers your dog and work on that. Seek a professional dog trainer to help with leash reactivity, aggression, or over-excitement/arousal. It absolutely can be improved!
I hope this article was helpful and illuminating (and perhaps a bit entertaining).
Need more in depth help with your dog? Have you seen our full day seminar on Reactivity? It is chock full of helpful information and real world (real dog) examples. You can watch it right now - click here for more info.
Danielle Lindblom CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer)