A while back, I learned this nifty phrase, “excitement is the precursor to all unwanted behaviors.” I don’t want to necessarily say that’s one hundred percent true, but it’s really easy to say behaviors like jumping up on us, counter surfing, or chasing a squirrel are all proceeded by the dog coming into a more excited state. This is why dog trainers talk about calming dogs down and keeping them calm.
I actually think it’s a mistake to keep dogs calm all the time because, frankly, it’s just kind of boring. My German Shepherds are involved in protection sport, so this means they have to bite a human and get physical and it’s a lot of fun for them and their owners.
All of the things the dogs do there is excitement, but it is under control and it is focused. I think It’s important for us as dog owners to not just ask for our dogs to be calm, but also show our dogs how to manage the excitement and focus it on useful things.
One thing I do with practically every beginner I’m starting with is I first teach them how to communicate. Then once I teach the dog how we’re going to communicate, I will intentionally release the dog from whatever skill they’re doing and then ask the dog to play. Then I’ll ask the owner to play, and as they’re playing together I really want them to get the dog excited.
At that point, I ask them to calm the dog down as quickly as possible.
It’s pretty funny sometimes trying to see folks calm their dog down after they’ve been playing hard. It’s such a good exercise for all involved, and it teaches us to get better at those non-verbal forms of communication which are incredibly important to creating a well-balanced dog. It also helps to give the dog those repetitions of going from excited to calm and back again.
I want everyone to think about practicing that soon. Put your dog in some kind of stay, maybe bait them into making a mistake and see if they can hold it.
When they’ve done a really nice job, release them and reward them with the thing you were baiting them with and get them as excited as you possibly can, and repeat the process. If you make a habit of that, not only will you become skilled, but your dog will too. Consider how useful that could be.