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8 Tips for Living with High Energy Dogs

My dog is hyper! It’s a common complaint. You can go for an hour’s run and come home ready to flake, but, no, not your dog. He (or she) looks at you ‘game on’, let’s go again…and again… and again. Not only that, he’s jumping all over you, barking, demanding your attention, chasing the birds, passers-by, anything that moves!

Often, the neighbours are also complaining about the barking when you are not home, and you may also find washing ripped off the line, garden hoses shredded, craters dug in the backyard, sprinkler systems dismantled. Nod vigorously if you can relate to this!

Busting Backyard Boredom: 8 Essential Tips for Living with a High Energy Dog

Is it to do with the breed?

Consider a work-depleted working dog, frustrated at not being able to do what its genes are telling it to…. work! What we get instead is destructiveness, digging, barking, escaping, over-excitability when you return home, jumping up, high-pitched yelping, demanding attention-seeking behaviour, pulling on the lead, and not coming back when called. 

The majority of dogs with high energy levels are working breeds or mixes, sheep dogs, cattle dogs, gun dogs, retrievers, guarding dogs and terriers. All fantastic dogs but generally not in the low-energy category! However, there is always considerable variation within a breed and any breed or mix-breed of dog can be highly energetic.

Could my dog have an anxiety disorder?

Most dogs need around 14-17 hours of rest a day, including sleep, lying around, sunbaking, relaxing, watching the world go by.  Even working dogs know when it’s time to switch off and are generally calm when not working. However, some dogs simply cannot relax, are highly impulsive and have short attention spans. 

Often this dog has had several unsuccessful attempts at puppy or dog training classes. The result is the dog is not taken for walks because it is too difficult, not allowed inside and has little social interaction because it is too annoying with its constant jumping and excitability. Both the dog and owner become very frustrated.

The majority of these high energy dogs are young and completely normal, active dogs. They simply haven’t learnt how to control their behaviour, how to relax or settle and how to communicate their needs to us in a more appropriate way. This is something we need to teach them. 

Owners are often surprised at how quickly their dog is able to focus and settle with consistent positive reinforcement training for doing the right things, like sitting calmly. The key is to practice a lot and with small, achievable steps to set your dog up (and you) for success.

However, a small number of these highly excitable dogs do have abnormal brain function. They don’t react to the world normally and are constantly vigilant, restless, destructive, unable to focus and are easily distracted regardless of how trivial the stimulus may be and how tasty the reward on offer. 

These abnormal dogs can’t learn tasks easily (they may ‘sit’ but only briefly before running off again), may overact to being restrained or to other changes in their environment.  If you think this describes your dog, then you need to see your veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist to investigate the possibility of an underlying anxiety disorder.

What to look for when getting a puppy or dog?

When you think about getting a puppy or dog, it shouldn’t just be based on what sort of dog you like the look of. It should be more about the match between the original purpose of the breed (e.g. hunting, herding, guarding, ratting), its likely energy levels, your expectations and what you can provide. If you can’t (or don’t want to) provide exercise and entertainment for your dog, a lot of backyard enrichment, training and games, then you really should look at a more sedate kind of dog, not bred for working.

It is also very important to see both parent dogs of the litter, or at least one.  Within a breed there is great variation, and genetics do influence the temperament of the puppies. If the mother or father are timid, anxious or fearful then this is a warning sign for potential problems – anxiety disorders are genetically transmitted. 

The pup’s early environment and learning experiences are also crucial factors in shaping the dog’s future personality and resilience. This is why seeing where the pups have been raised and how they have been handled and exposed to other animals, people, children, noises in those first 8-12 weeks is so important.  A stressed, anxious mother or pups that are raised in barren environments with little human interaction are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.

8 Essential Ways for providing outlets for your Dog’s Energy and Rewarding Calm Behaviour

Now for the nuts and bolts of managing your high-energy dog’s needs, creating calm, and restoring the joy of living together again. 

#1. Physical Exercise & Routines

Exercise is important as it stimulates serotonin release in the brain, which is nature’s anti-depressant and mood regulator. Provide daily exercise – a walk or run – for at least 20-30 minutes once or twice a day at roughly the same time, before you go to work and when you get home. 

Providing a routine is so important to give dogs stability and confidence. Structure relieves stress if the dog can predict what the day will bring – ‘oh goody, they’re up, I get a play. ‘Now they’re off to work, that’s ok, I can’t wait to get my breakfast’. While that is anthropomorphising a little bit, dogs do easily learn by association (both positive and negative).

#2. Interactive Playtime

If you can’t go for a walk, don’t worry, playtime is just as good. Dogs don’t just want to run around; they also want to PLAY with you! 
High energy dogs will want to do both! 

Play fetch in the backyard, throw a Frisbee or a ball, or play "chasey" (tag). My dog loves this and I can never catch her, that’s half the fun! 

I’ve seen videos of dogs playing chasey with other household pets (even a duck!).

Hide-and -Seek is also a great game, for outside and inside. Make sure you have plenty of treats or your dog’s favourite toy – get him to sit and stay while you run and hide. Call out to your dog and when he finds you, praise him enthusiastically and reward him with his toy or treats. 

Avoid these games around kids if your dog tends to gets overexcited, though. Some dogs with a high-prey drive can switch into herding or chasing mode with running, squealing kids. Stick to throwing balls or other toys for these dogs.

#3. Mental Exercise & Communication

While physical exercise is important, mental stimulation is also crucial for keeping high-energy dogs occupied. For this there are plenty of fun training games you can implement.

Firstly, you need to establish good communication with your dog. One simple rule you can teach your dog that also provides structured communication is to ‘SIT’ before all interactions. This is not an order or punishable if she doesn’t, she just doesn’t get her reward. You dog will soon learn that she has to sit before she gets what she wants. 

You can then expand on this to SIT, LOOK (at you) and STAY for a few seconds to get what she wants. Start with rewarding your dog as soon as she makes eye contact with you, working up to 5 secs over time. This creates a Calm Sit. 
Practice this in a variety of locations around the yard, while sitting, while standing, all family members and eventually on walks, as dogs don’t generalise very well. 
Do short sessions (2-5 minutes) often (30 times a day!).

#4. Food Puzzle Toys

Make Feeding time a Game – it’s a waste of time plonking down a bowl of dog food for it to be guzzled in 1 minute. Where’s the fun in that?! Instead, use your dog’s daily food ration to stretch its mind. Make your dog work for its food! 

There is a great range of food puzzle toys around to do this job such as Kong Wobbler, Northmate Green, Buster Food Cube and many other boredom busters or you can make your own.

Why not freeze a mixture of tinned and dried food or mince inside a cardboard toilet roll or place some dry food inside a nest of different sized packaged-food boxes so he has to tear open each successive box to get to the food. You can also hide food around the garden for your dog to discover while you are away – leave a few treats in the open for your dog to find then he/she will be open to the possibility of finding others.

#5. Backyard Agility Course

Make your backyard or indoor area more exciting by making a fun agility course. For DIYers there are some great websites with tips on building your own tunnels, see-saws, jumps and weave poles. Simple. This is great interactive exercise for both you and your dog, and you can time your dog to test his skill if you like.

#6. Digging Pits

If your dog loves to dig, then give him an area where he is allowed to dig, while fencing off areas of the garden that are off-limits. You can bury a bone or a frozen toy filled with food in the pit for your dog to discover during the day. Kids’ clam shells are great for this – you can fill one half with sand and the other half with water for hot days or dogs that love swimming.

#7. Encourage Calm Behaviour

So, so important. We have to switch our thinking from stopping dogs doing what we don’t want them to do, to rewarding the things we do want them to! We miss all the opportunities to reward them when doing absolutely nothing! 

Practice being more aware of what your dog is doing, and say in a very soft whisper, or even quieter than that, ‘good dog’, when he or she is lying down or just sitting calmly. 

Don’t engage eye contact or touch, you don’t want to stimulate your dog into jumping up, just reward with your voice. There are no side effects to giving your dog too much praise! The more he or she gets rewarded for calm, the more of a default behaviour it becomes. 

Remember, you get the behaviour you reward. If your dog jumps up, turn away then back quickly instructing ‘Sit’, then reward for the sit. He or she may keep trying jumping up but after consistent rewards for the sit only, your dog will start offering the sit to get the reward. 

#8. Teach your dog to RELAX on cue

Rewarding calmness and teaching relax cues are your most important tools. High-energy dogs can’t ‘switch off’ on their own. One eye is always half open, ready for action. Perhaps they suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? You might relate to this if you can’t get your dog to sit on a mat for any length of time, as soon as you move or crinkle the treat pack he jumps up. 

These dogs really need your help to relax – they need to be taught this. Teaching your dog to ‘Go to Bed’ becomes the cue for settling and relaxing with a chew toy or even sleep. Your dog knows this is the spot where it’s safe and good things happen (food, pats, massage, sleep by the fire). This needs to be done in slow steps, of course.

You can use a crate for your dog instead of a mat if you prefer, and this can work really well for some dogs, especially if they sleep inside. Never use the crate or mat as a punishment.

About our writer

Dr Julia Adams BVSc is a veterinarian and animal behaviour consultant in Cootamundra, NSW. 

She is passionate about educating pet owners and helping them overcome behaviour issues that negatively affect their lives and the relationships they have with their pets. Follow her at Pets on the Couch

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