Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 2: Hyperactivity and Anxiety

Hyperactivity (Arousal, Overstimulation, Anxiety) is Connection to Dog Aggression

 

"Well, aren't you just the sweetest thing ever!” Pause for a deep inhaling gasp. “Kissy, kissy, kissy! Oh, look at that little tail wagging a million miles an hour. You're a happy dog aren’t you? Yes you are!” - average dog lover saying hello to a dog. 

 

Have you ever noticed that most people are naturally gifted at getting dogs super excited? They think it’s “cute” and entertaining and feel as though they are making the dog “happy” by doing so. They love dogs and mean well, of course, but have you also noticed that they are top notch complainers when it comes to dogs behaving aggressively? Obviously, these loving people don't realize they may be contributing to the dog's aggression but sometimes they are. Yes, yes, yes, dogs can be very happy while being hyperactive but that's only in that moment, we need to zoom out and see the big picture here. We need to be aware of the fact that dog aggression is often fueled by hyperactivity and anxiety...particularly when these mental/emotional states are indulged commonly or become chronic.

 

Anxiety is often associated with fear but what I'm talking about here are the other synonyms for anxiety such as agitated, antsy, squirrelly, disquieted, edgy, tense, overwrought or neurotic. These emotional states are often caused by repeated acts of overstimulation which lead to a dog with frustration intolerance and a massive lack of impulse control. Loving dog owners are baffled when their beloved and “spoiled” dog behaves aggressively. They will say things like, “I don’t understand. We have never abused the dog. In fact, he has been treated with nothing but love and kindness.” 

 

I totally get it, no, really, I do. I completely understand why a person would expect that all their love and kindness would be reciprocated by the dog but, unfortunately, that simply isn’t how nature works. In balance, kindness is not a problem but too much kindness can be interpreted by a dog as weakness or submission. Phrases such as “nothing but kindness” imply a lack of other important factors for raising a balanced dog such as discipline, leadership, structure, impulse control, stress inoculation, obedience training, etc. This, in turn, implies that there is a whole bunch of permissiveness, overindulgence and “spoiling” going on. This sort of lifestyle often leads to hyperactivity which can lead to chronic anxiety which, in some cases, leads to aggression. 

 

“Are saying that getting a dog excited will make them aggressive? I don’t believe that! I get my dogs excited all the time and they are not aggressive at all.” 

 

I know, I know, some dogs can hold up to the antics of the typical dog lover and never show any signs of aggression. Dog trainers and behaviorists have a term for these dogs, they call them “people proof” dogs. Regardless, if you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you have a dog with aggression issues, which means your dog is probably not people proof, which means you may need to make some lifestyle changes. Please stay with me and I will explain, ok?

 

I’m guessing that the concept of aggression coming from a dog being routinely overstimulated is new to you and your brain is probably going to look for ways to deny what I’m saying. That is totally normal, your brain will want to protect your preconceived beliefs and you will naturally want to preserve the joy you get from getting dogs excited. To be clear, I am not saying we can never get our dogs excited, I am merely saying that there is a time and place for it and that it needs to be in balance with some structure and leadership. 

 

If you are still with me, please try to keep an open mind and let me see if I can help connect the dots as to what leads to hyperactivity, why it’s a problem, how it can become chronic, how that can lead to chronic anxiety and how all of that is often connected to aggression. 

 

Hyperactivity and Anxiety Exaggerate or Intensify Behaviors and Emotional States

  • Overreaction to novelty, annoyances, fears, challenges, etc. 
  • A startle becomes a panic (see: Fear
  • A warning becomes an attack
  • A mild uncertainty becomes a massive “Hell No!” 
  • Something mildly interesting becomes an “O…M…G!”     

Lack of Impulse Control 

  • Little to no self restraint, emotional control or patience (see: Tight Leash
  • Inability to calm down around distractions or in new environments. 
  • Over time, some dogs develop a generalized or chronic state of anxiety; they struggle to calm down, even at home with nothing much going on. 
  • Rapid, shallow panting is a sign of anxiety. If they are panting for no good reason (not hot or haven't just been exercising) they are probably in an anxious state. 

Disobedience 

  • Hyperactive, anxious dogs are hard to control and easily distracted.

Annoyance to Others

  • Triggers aggression or “rage” from other dogs…and people.
  • Hyper dogs often can’t take a hint, which leads to harsher corrections from the dog they are annoying, which often leads to a fight or an attack. This can also happen when annoyed humans get upset at the dog and resort to harsh punishment. 
  • Repetitions of these agonistic interactions can cause the originally “happy” dog to become defensive or aggressive. (see: Fear) For some dogs this can happen with just one bad experience.   

Not Enough Exercise (see video on Exercise)

  • Hyperactivity often comes from excess or pent up energy which will be released somewhere, probably explosively.
  • Exercising the dog needs to be a daily routine. You can’t leave the dog in the yard all week and then do a marathon on Sunday. It’s an accumulative thing. 
  • Some dogs appear to be calm when nothing is going on, so no one thinks the dog needs to be exercised. Then they’re baffled when something in the environment triggers the dog to act like a nut. All that “calm time” was just charging their battery.   

Unbalanced Exercise (see: video on Exercise)

  • Too much overstimulating exercise
    • Fetch, dog park, wrestling and tug games, silly play with the kids, etc. 
  • Lack of mentally focused exercises
    • Obedience training, controlled retrieves, agility, etc. 
  • Lack of mentally calming exercises
    • Long walks/hikes on a loose leash
    • Long line adventures - time to just sniff around and be a dog. 
    • The Long Down (aka The Art of Doing Nothing
    • Long duration heeling (walking, jogging or biking)
    • Calm petting/message sessions in an otherwise exciting environment  

At the end of the day it comes down to this; calm dogs rarely get into trouble. I am trying hard to think of an aggression case that I’ve seen in which the dog was totally calm other than when being aggressive for some out of the blue reason. I’m sure it happens but there is almost always an underlying issue with hyperactivity or anxiety going on. Pay close attention to this and see if you also find this to be the case. Many times this is missed because hyperactive, anxious behavior is often interpreted as “happy” and, understandably, most people are not inclined to connect happy with aggressive. Here’s the thing; the happiness part is not the problem, it’s the hyper-anxious-impulsive part that’s a problem. Sure, some dogs can full throttle their way through life without being aggressive, this is a given, but many can’t. All I’m saying is that it’s one of many factors worth paying attention to when working with aggressive dogs.

 

Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant and Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

Please use the links below to follow the whole series for a more complete understanding of the triggers and underlying factors of dog aggression.

Related Topics:

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 1: Tight Leashes

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 2: Hyperactivity and Anxiety 

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 3: Overly Intense Play

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 4: Fear and Anxiety

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 5: Frustration and Agitation

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 6: Obnoxious Submission

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 7: Dominance

 

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