“My dog loves people too much! He leaps all over them and he’s big, he can throw them over!”
“My dog loves dogs so much he goes crazy! He pulls and barks, and when he gets there he loves them so much he jumps. I wish other dogs understood he really wants to play, but sometimes they get mad.”
While I certainly believe dogs can feel love, that’s not the emotion I would attribute to these and many other similar situations. In cases like this, a more accurate description is to say that the dog is excited. Dog trainers often refer to this over the top behavior as arousal. Arousal can lead to a lot of unwanted behavior and occasionally even tip over into aggression. Dogs may exhibit arousal for a lot of different reasons and the underlying emotions may vary. The truth is the dog showing a lot of arousal when it sees a new person, may not “love” people at all. He might actually be nervous or unsure about them. Or may be he just becomes very excited by anything that happens near the doorway and his over the top behavior with visitors may have less to do with the visitor than it does with the fact that the doorbell rang just a second earlier.
There are also other reasons that some dogs may show arousal more quickly than others. Dogs that are under stress may become excited more easily. Some breeds and individual dogs may show a tendency to become excited very quickly.
Sometimes owners misinterpret their dog’s arousal as happiness and end up encouraging this behavior. Consider owners that throw a party when they get home “hey Rover, I’m home! Yay!” The dog responds by leaping all over the owner. The next day when a visitor enters, Rover reacts the same way, annoying the visitor and embarrassing the owner. Arousal can cause much more serious problems as well. For instance, the parent who enjoys watching his children wrestle with the family dog. One day a child is bitten and the parent is confused how this could happen when the dog seemed to “love” wrestling with the child so much. A very common situation I see in Northern Virginia is the owner who takes her dog to the dog park because she misinterprets her dog’s excited behavior in the park. One day her dog ends up getting into a fight and she is confused because her dog always seemed to “love” other dogs. A dog that is running might be having fun, or it might be nervous, scared, angry or just excited. A lot of movement does not necessarily mean a dog is happy.
Fortunately, we can help our dogs really be happy when we recognize arousal and excitement for what it is. Sometimes it is a matter of changing our own behavior, for instance by interacting with our dogs in a calmer way. Other times we may need to train our dogs a new behavior, such as to hold a calm stay when people enter the home. We may need to come up with different ways to exercise and play with our dogs so that they are really having fun. All of us need to make sure we are also spending some down time with our dogs, walking with them in a quiet park or relaxing with them at home.
Happy relaxing holidays to all!