The subject of dog behavior and training is littered with facts and fallacies, all mingled together to create maximum confusion for dog parents. One of the most common fallacies I witness each day is the phrase "get the energy out." Anyone who has spent time at a dog park, or any area where dogs are at play, has likely heard this phrase repeated ad nauseam. But is it true? Is it possible to get energy out of a dog? What does that phrase even mean?
The belief is that energy in dogs is some mysterious kinetic force that builds over time and must be vented and expended otherwise the dog may burst at the seams. That belief is perpetuated by evidence that seems to support such an assertion. For instance, imagine coming home to a dog that has been kenneled all afternoon. What meets us at the kennel is an endless well-spring of energy ready do explode; the apparent product of the dog being "pent up."
As such, many well-meaning dog parents will open the gate and let them run to their hearts content. All the while thinking "Yes! Run that energy out!" Or, even worse, will leave their overly energetic dog outdoors all day to run. For many this results in a torn up yard, chewed up plants, and destroyed furniture. Or perhaps complaints from the neighbors who have tolerated a stressed out barking dog all day.
Unfortunately, our understanding of this scenario is not well-interpreted. The energy that we see at this time is an explosion of emotions, thoughts, plans, and decisions that erupt as a dog experiences transitional stress. This is the residual effects of any change in a dog's environment.
When things change in a dog's life stress becomes a counter-response. This stress is marked by an increase in cortisol levels, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased respiratory rates, all caused by the transition of us coming home. It has nothing to do with being in the kennel for the afternoon.
This theory can be tested by leaving your dog outside of the kennel for the afternoon -- a potential disaster for many families, and possibly dangerous for the dog. Will the dog be more calm when you come home or will there still be an explosion of excitement? For most families, the outlandish behavior will still be there. Or perhaps they will come home to a house that has been destroyed! Either way the energy is still there with or without the kennel. It is the transition that creates the excessive energy.
There is no such thing as "getting energy out" of a dog. The problem with overly energetic dogs is they are unable to keep the energy in. Instead, they keep letting it out all the time. The solution here is not physical exercise, it is the need for physical and mental boundaries.
Excitement in dogs means arousal, or excessive neural stimulation. Young, teenage dogs, in particular, have difficulty compartmentalizing their thoughts and emotions. They have not yet developed the neural inhibitors necessary to stifle their own impulses.
Moreover, the prefrontal cortex in their brain that is charged with regulating executive decision-making is not yet fully developed. It will not be fully developed until the dog reaches the age of 3 years old. In other words, they have not yet achieved the ability to self control. Instead, their thoughts and emotions run away with them.
Our American society has a fashionable fixation with stimulating dogs to the point of upset. As such, we tend to give them copious amounts of toys and treats -- and most destructive, we give them too many choices. Dogs do not want a thousand choices. They want to know the correct choice.
In summary, the key to energy reduction is to break out the leash, give them a command or directive, then enforce that directive. The effect of controlling a dog in this manner is a reduction in their overall stress -- possibly yours too!
It works to take thousands of potential choices off the table and allows them to more readily locate the correct path for behavior. This means they will more easily focus on us for direction. Once this is achieved, we will see their willingness to execute skills training to be greatly improved.
Start today helping your dog to control their thoughts by reducing their choices.
If you are interested in learning more about how dogs think, be sure to pick up a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior. It is one of the first integrated philosophies in dog behavior; a theory that sees the mind of dog as a unified system on a search for survival and connection. This theory blows the roof off of the oversimplified click-and-treat conditioning protocols whereby dogs are taught simple mechanical skills. Instead, it sees them as innovative, thinking, plotting, and creative creatures with a lust for life and a talent for planning and manipulation.
They are more like children than what is currently understood...
Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached at www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.