“Overstimulated”: How Did We Get Here and What Can We Do Now by Nancy Beaurpere and Chelsey McMahon

Over my decade plus of working with dogs, the description I most often find myself using to describe a dog engaging in maladaptive behaviors at doggy daycare is “overstimulated”.  Time and time again I’ve described dogs in this way under the assumption that owners have an adequate understanding of how overstimulation in the canine world presents, and that most are equipped with some basic knowledge of the root causes of overstimulation.  Lately, however, I’ve realized that this messaging could use some clarification.  So, let me anthropomorphize for a minute: you’re attempting to make dinner after a long day of work.  Your partner is working late so the task of making dinner and ensuring that your two small children don’t end up in fisticuffs relies solely on you.  As you cook, your four-year-old starts tugging on your cardigan and whining because he can’t find his newest Star Wars toy; meanwhile, your six-year-old starts yelling, “chicken and rice again?!  I hate chicken and rice!”.  Not long after, you step into a fresh pool of vomit left on the kitchen mat by your dog.  Then your phone vibrates in your pocket and it’s a staff member letting you know that they are sick and will not be able to make their opening shift in the morning.   When your partner finally moseys into the kitchen and asks where the backup rolls of paper towels are, you glare at him and snap, “How do you not know where the paper towels in your own house are?!  How many times do I have to tell you where we keep them?!”  Your husband sulks off and now you feel like a monster.  Are you a monster?  No, you are not.  What you are is overstimulated.  The same thing that happens to us, also happens to dogs.

So let me be crystal: an overstimulated dog is not necessarily an aggressive dog, nor is he or she necessarily unfit for daycare.  An overstimulated dog is simply a dog that is sensitive to sensory stimuli and may become reactive or manic due to an inability to appropriately mollify themselves during instances of increased levels of arousal.  

Merriam Webster defines the word overstimulated as “excessively stimulated”, and while I don’t find that definition particularly helpful given it uses part of the word itself in the definition, we can focus on the fact that a dog (or a human) in a state of overstimulation is going to experience excessively heightened emotions; because of this, their reactions to stimuli will often appear inappropriate or exaggerated as their sympathetic nervous system – the system in the body that controls the “fight or flight” response –  is in a state of stress.  

My Lead Trainer, Chelsey McMahon, likes to describe a dog in an overstimulated state as appearing that he/she is operating with “all gas, and no brakes” in “manic mode”.  She furthers that dogs in this state become “tunnel visioned”, which makes it difficult to redirect them no matter how hard you try.  Dogs in an overstimulated state are “absorbing heightened energy, such as new dogs coming into or leaving the facility – i.e. transition times – and then amplifying that energy.”  

Chelsey goes on to add that “overstimulation can also be tied into mental processing. The more sights, sounds, and physical stimuli around, the more a dog’s brain has to process.”   Puppies and adolescent dogs often become overstimulated more quickly and easily than older dogs because the synapses in their brain that respond to sensual stimuli are underdeveloped.  Additionally, “a dog that has lacked exposure to the world and had very little training will have [inchoate] senses.” 

 When training, Chelsey is cognizant of incorporating all of a dog’s senses – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch – into her sessions.  This multi-faceted approach to training assists a dog in information retention.  As new information is retained, it can then “be applied to real life scenarios, where coping mechanisms are needed to keep overstimulation and increased anxieties at bay.  Simply put, the more we train the more we grow the brain! The stronger the brain is, the more it can process, which then creates a mentally balanced and grounded dog, especially during moments of increased energy. By laying the appropriate groundwork, we can create coping skills and behavioral boundaries to reinforce more positive learnt behaviors and social boundaries.”  

If you have a dog that gets overstimulated easily, don’t worry – this is likely to decrease with time.  In the meantime, we can help.  For a complimentary consultation with one of our trainers, just email us: info@dingosdogsitting.com

Sense more.  Overstimulate less.  #dingosdogsitting

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