Hyperarousal in dogs can be a confusing topic. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with terms like "excited" and "high-drive" but it's not the same thing.
Dogs who are hyperaroused live with stress levels that are higher than what is healthy. They exist in chronic states of stress, often either with a high baseline stress level, or without sufficient space and time to decompress between hyper-arousing events (because they take a long time and a lot of support to come down).
We might think of these dogs as having a baseline stress level of yellow to orange. They struggle to relax or rest, even when their needs have seemingly been satiated. Guardians may report that their dog is impossible to tire out, or has endless energy. They may actually exacerbate the problem by increasing physical exercise particularly through exercises that themselves increase arousal like fetch. The dog may only rest when he is utterly exhausted.
These dogs may seemingly pant for no reason, struggle to respond to known cues in many contexts, or have trouble efficiently recognizing and responding to social cues from other pets and humans alike.
There are many reasons a dog may struggle with hyperarousal. Variables alike position en utero, birth order, and maternal care can significantly impact behavior and stress levels.
Under-whelming or over-whelming environments, particularly during developmentally sensitive times can result in a hyperaroused dog.
Some dogs may become hyperaroused when they experience chronic or sustained pain - an often overlooked sign of pain! But exercise provides temporary pain relief, and is a good distraction, so some dogs become more physically active when they hurt.
My German Shepherd Dog, Shadow, had an under-whelming first year and a half of life. This is particularly difficult for a dog from working lines. As a result, he didn't know how to relax. He found it difficult to lay down or settle if there was any sort of disturbance in his environment or routine, and even after his needs had been sufficiently stimulated.
We would take Shadow and the other dogs on long hikes up rivers and across mountains. When we stopped to rest the other dogs would take a break in the shade, sniff around, or drink water. Shadow would almost immediately begin whining. Just the act of holding still was overwhelming for him, and his arousal levels were so high that he couldn't slow down to do things like explore and process his immediate environment.
The good news is, we can help these dogs to have a lower stress baseline, improved resilience, and increased ability to self-regulate. This is not only imperative for their behavioral health, but also their physical, mental, and emotional health. And generally for the well-being of their relationships, too.
A general plan to help the hyperaroused dog may go as follows:
1. Rule out pain or discomfort with your veterinarian
2. Create management around stressors that take the dog into the yellow zone or higher, even those perceived as fueled by positive emotion (like fetch or arousal around visitors).
3. Create a list of exercises that focus on building resilience and self-regulation, like on-off switch games, that are appropriate for the individual dog.
4. Focus on calming enrichment and exercises like relax on a mat (which does not involve an implied stay or forced stillness), capturing calm behavior, and nose work.
5. Use various tools like pattern games or seeking exercises to help your dog regulate their arousal in specific situations in which they struggle. Make sure the challenge is appropriate for their skill level.
6. In some cases behavioral medication may be appropriate to support the dog in achieving their goals. This should not be considered a last resort; chronic stress is incredibly unhealthy and lowering baseline stress levels should be prioritized.
When arousal decreases it is not uncommon to find unexpected emotion underlying the arousal. The hyperaroused dog is often assumed to be over-excited, but in fact may be frustrated, unsure, anxious, or fearful. When the dog's stress levels decrease we may see changes in body language and behavior that make those emotions more clear.
In those cases, it is then appropriate to address those stressors in the context of their function and emotional valence.
When Shadow and I first began to formally address his hyperarousal he was unable to forage for his breakfast - his favorite meal of the day - because simply moving from inside to outside and serving breakfast on the grass (not very tall, and not spread widely) was impossibly difficult. He walked away.
Now, I'm proud to report, that if I can hide a toy well enough he can search upwards of five minutes! That's some real working dog level skill. But he had to get to a lower level of arousal so that his stress didn't impeed his ability to process information, make decisions, and persevere in the face of a challenge.