The genetic influence to over arousal can prove a complex conversation. It can be personal, it can be historic, it can be emotive and it can be enlightening.
There are some breeds, types or lines within breeds that are predisposed to ‘over arousal’, and beware aware of this can help minimise this becoming a huge issue.
The following could be applied to many dogs and breeds. However for the purpose of explanation, I will focus on one.
Lets look at a breed that I hold near and dear to examine ‘over arousal’ caused by genetics and selection based on traits deemed desirable. The malinois is the ultimate and extreme end of the canine world that ‘suffers’ from over arousal. I use the term ‘suffer’, but in truth it also makes them so amazing. Their characteristics are both a blessing and a curse.
Malinois’s by nature are a dog that ‘live on their nerve’, meaning they are hyper-vigilant, easily aroused and have extreme reactions, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, in a split second and then being perfectly ‘fine’ the next. All traits, that when not channelled, utilised and educated can become problematic.
They are a breed who come ‘over aroused’ from birth largely! If you ever see or meet a litter of malinois puppies, they are notoriously intense even in their early interactions. It is not unusual for malinois puppies to want to bite and show ‘aggressive’ behaviour more akin to older dogs. Their exteme intensity is often apparent early on.
This can be displayed as aggression, apprehension or anxiety. Whilst it is much sought after to find and select a ‘calm stable’ malinois, they are somewhat a rarity now due to their popularity and prevalence in dog sports, and even rescues across the globe. Its a numbers game. As a breed increases in popularity, often so does the loss of core attributes.
So why and how have we created a dog with these traits that we see in the malinois?
A huge determining factor today, is the influence of dog sports, and the Malinois’s aptitude to undertake any dog sport with tenacity and verve.
The malinois intensity, allows them to complete behaviours with speed, intensity and flare. All appealing in dog sports. The Dog/human relationship originally stemmed from harnessing natural behaviours or desires, into tasks or ‘jobs’, and then subsequently modified to sports specific tasks. So hunting, chasing and biting have been moulded into sports specific skills. Therefore any animal with ‘more’ of these attributes would be best suited to perform these behaviours. For example, the dog that loves to chase and ‘grab’, would be ‘easy’ to train to do bitework or agility. However, this desire can come in abundance and without an off switch. And what happens to the remainder of the time, when you aren’t using these traits? Unfortunately they don’t disappear.
Additionally, this tenacity and drive makes them resilient, which is an attribute needed to endure the rigours, knocks, misinformation, lack of understanding etc that we have inadvertently imposed on dogs as a trade off with the human/canine dynamic. Dogs are amazing, and tolerant. Having resilience comes in handy.
The dogs that had an aptitude to these behaviours or character traits, would be most ‘successful’ and then their genes perpetuated within a sport. So the cycle continues.
To have a dog that is prone to over arousal, takes a great deal of understanding to be able to harness those attributes into a task and create a stable citizen.
I regularly encounter clients who have taken on such a breed, or type and initially are allured by all their ‘assets’ until these grow and develop and become their undoing. This can result in rehoming, submitting to rescue or even PTS.
Often their drive and intensity can appear dormant or non existent initially, but like a genie in a bottle… it is there waiting and itching to come out. I call these ‘slow burners’. My first malinois was off this type, I made the fatal mistake of thinking he ‘had no drive’…. I soon learnt that lesson!
These type of dogs are most definitely for specialist, they can be fantastic ‘pets’ but need an outlet for those breed characteristics, and they need an outlet that is ‘healthy’. Often these types of dogs have an unhealthy obsessive compulsive mindset, which if not worked on can contribute to over arousal. But they are also ‘special’!
1. Ensure you find out exactly what you are taking on, warts and all. In dog sports specifically, it is easy to create an illusion of what a dog is, rather then what they truly are. See a dog/breed etc from all perspective and ensure you do your homework! Having to cope with a dog that is susceptible to over arousal in daily life, can be a all consuming commitment. Make sure you know what you’re taking on.
2. Dogs that are prone to over arousal, are generally a joy to train and engage with. That isn’t going to be the struggle. The challenge will be teaching them to ‘chill’, be ‘calm’ and switch off when needed. Place as much importance on this as teaching skills.
3. Teach a clear on and off switch. And be consistent with its use. This creates a dog that knows when it can be ‘off’ and not ‘ever ready’. This is crucial for creating ‘balance’.
4. Two positive make a negative. Putting two high energy dogs together doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing. More isn’t always better. You want to select dogs that compliment each other. What does your dog lack and what attributes would you like to improve. Be objective in your choices. No dog is perfect and thats ok.
5. Look at the sport beyond the sport. How does the cope with the challenges of the environment, test and situation. There lies the ‘real’ dog. A good trainer can make an average dog look amazing, or mask flaws. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have nothing to hide, the answers won’t be an issue.
6. Ensure your dogs relationship to the work is healthy. A slight amount of obsession is a great asset, too much and it can be your ongoing. Balance out desire with indifference, and do it from day one.
7. Be mindful of awakening the genie too early, too soon or without any understanding. Once the genie is out, it won’t go back in the box! If it’s in the dog, let it come out with understanding, maturity and time. It isn’t a sprint to success, its a marathon.
8. These type of dogs crave ‘work’, but provided outlets where they can expel mental and physical energy is a important part of creating contentment. It doesn’t have to always be about ‘work’, some things in life are free!
9. Don’t ignore the details. These type of dogs have a knack of masking anxiety, nerve, apprehension, misunderstandings…. they just keep trying! The spectrum for behavioural traits are all over lapping, fear and aggression, excitement and anxiety….The dog that is over aroused, may be hiding something else. It can be their way of ‘coping’. Pay attention… seeing ‘over arousal’ for what it is, is crucial, to identifying a solution.
10. The pursuit of ‘calmness’ is a long term goal, for dogs that live on the edge. Trying to ‘force’ it will only add to their frustration. Contentment is fair easier to attain. Start there, and move to calmness.