Hyperactivity – Does It Really Exist?

Coping with a high energy dog can be a challenge but labelling a dog as being hyperactive may not be a true evaluation of a dog’s behaviour. Hyperactivity or hyperkinesis is a medical condition with certain associated physiological symptoms and is relatively uncommon.

A dog which is reactive, unable to settle in familiar environments, has lack of focus, an inability to concentrate, is over excitable and attention seeking could very easily be described as hyperactive but before jumping to any conclusions we should look more into a dog’s daily routine and activities.

What type of dog is it and does the dog have the opportunity to express normal behaviour patterns? Is the dog getting enough exercise and mental stimulation and is it the right type of exercise/mental stimulation? It is probably impossible to tire a working sheepdog unless you have a large flock of sheep and miles of hillside for the dog to work on but mental stimulation in the form of searching for food and objects out on a walk and the use of puzzle games and snuffle mats will help to exercise a dog’s brain and provide a feeling of wellbeing.

Does the terrier have the opportunity to dig and chew? You could provide a sand pit and bury some toys for him to dig out. How about some retrieve and searching games for the Labrador or springer spaniel? Be innovative, brain games are very important.

Is the dog getting enough social interaction with other dogs and people? Variety is the spice of life … make sure that walks allow a dog to meet new and novel environments.

Is the dog genuinely overexcited or has he never been trained not to jump all over visitors? Introduce good manners training alongside general training. Clicker training will stimulate his mind and positive reinforcement stimulates the release of dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter) and serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter).

‘Let sleeping dogs lie’. When you have an excitable dog, it is a relief when he settles down.  However, calm and relaxed behaviour is often ignored by owners (despite it being the one behaviour they crave). Calm and relaxed behaviour should be reinforced.

‘We are what we eat’ and our dogs are no different. If a dog is not getting the appropriate nutrients in the correct ratio then behaviour could be affected. Look at the type of food the dog is eating; it should have a good quality protein source and provide the correct energy requirements. Very often owners feed their dog a working dog diet on the only premise that their dog is a working type, but if the dog is living in a family home with a couple of walks around the block everyday then the diet should be adjusted accordingly. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to overactivity and lack of concentration in both dogs and humans. Stress will often prevent dogs from being sufficiently relaxed to learn more acceptable behaviours but the biochemical pathway that reflects anxiety in dogs is similar to that in humans and Breakthrough is a convenient, complete dry food for all dogs that encourages the serotonin pathway in a dog’s brain, making him more receptive and relaxed which, in turn, helps him learn. Breakthrough has been specifically developed to help overcome such problems. www.breakthroughdog.co.uk

Household routine? We all need predictability in our lives. If we never know when our next meal is going to be served, if the taxi is going to come on time, if we are going to miss our flight, then we will become stressed and anxious. Dogs are no different. If the household is chaotic and disorganised and feeding times and walks are unpredictable, a dog may become agitated and irritable. Establish a routine so that the dog is familiar with the household activities and that the important aspects of his life are predictable.

Overactivity and excitability can be symptoms of underlying medical conditions. It may be that you should consult a veterinary surgeon to rule out liver disease, hyperthyroidism, neurological problems and even parasitic infestations.

If you have tried everything then it is probably time to talk to your veterinary surgeon. Just like humans, dogs can have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which is a treatable medical condition. Dogs with a short attention span, exhibiting compulsive behaviours such as tail chasing/spinning, inability to learn, destructiveness and restlessness, constant movement and panting should be referred for further investigations. In addition to these problems, dogs which are hyperkinetic will have an increased heart rate and respiration when at rest. In a calm and familiar environment both heart rate and respiration will be measured. Following on from these measurements a stimulant such as Ritalin will be administered, and the dog placed again in a calm and familiar environment. (The paradox of this is that a stimulant will induce calm and focussed behaviour in subjects with ADHD). Once again both heart rate and respiration will be measured and if both measurements are reduced and the dog is calmer then the dog can be diagnosed as having ADHD.

In conclusion, many dogs are merely frustrated and under stimulated rather than being truly hyperactive, but for those dogs (and owners) which have true hyperactivity/hyperkinesis then investigation and medication are the answers.


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