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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Dog professionals often talk about dogs who are under-stimulated, but on the opposite side of the spectrum are countless dogs who are overstimulated. Dog owners often fail to realize the impact overstimulation may have on their dogs and sometimes believe their dogs just need more training when in reality their dogs simply need less intense exposure and more skill on how to better cope with their environment.
But what causes overstimulation in dogs? What are the signs? And what steps can be taken to reduce the impact overstimulation has on the lives of dogs?
Every time our dogs are exposed to stimuli in their environment, countless neurons fire and the dog's brain reacts by telling them how to react. A stimulus is a form of energy that transfers to the body, eliciting a physiological or psychological response. Whether it's just an ear twitch to identify the source of a sound or a more consistent barking directed towards strangers walking past the yard, dogs tend to react to stimuli they are exposed to on a daily basis.
This happens because dogs (and humans) have special sensory receptors that have nerve endings that respond to stimuli by carrying sensory information to processing circuits in the central nervous system. Sensory receptors are found in the dog's auditory system (hearing), olfactory system (smelling), visual system (seeing), tactile sensory system (feeling) and gustatory system (tasting).
Responding to stimuli in the environment is important as it offers higher chances of survival in animals. Dogs who sense a danger are likely to take action to up their chance of survival. On top of responding to external stimuli in the environment, dogs also respond to internal stimuli. For instance, the internal sense of hunger brings a dog to seek food, while the internal sense of thirst evokes a dog to seek water.
As seen, the dog's ability to respond to stimuli is very important, and dogs who are more alert have a higher chance of surviving and reproducing compared to dogs who are not.
While responding to stimuli in the environment is important to dogs and ups their chances for survival (adaptive), responding to too many stimuli may not. For example, a dog who retreats from a snake shows an appropriate, adaptive behavior, while a dog who retreats from everything that moves exhibits an abnormal behavior that's maladaptive, explains Karen Overall, a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behavior and an Applied Animal Behaviorist.
When dogs are exposed to an urban environment, dogs receive loads of sensory stimulation. Telephones ringing, computer beeping, dishwasher noises, doorbells, alarm clocks, smoke alarms, microwaves, washing machines, televisions sounds are just a few examples of indoor auditory sensory stimulation. Not to mention outdoor noises such as sirens, car doors closing, other dogs barking, helicopters hovering and the noisy waste disposal truck.
Dogs who have access to windows or dogs left in the yard are often exposed to additional visual stimulation under the form of cars passing by, strangers walking, joggers, children playing (hopefully not teasing the dog), postal service workers, people walking their dogs, etc.
We humans understand the many stimuli that we are exposed to on a daily basis. We are happy when our loved ones leave messages on the answering machine, we look forward to Fedex delivering us a package, we are grateful when the smoke alarm has informed us that our meal was burning on the stove and we know that helicopters hovering are not a threat to us. Best of all, if there's a new sound we can always talk to ourselves to reassure ourselves. What's that drilling noise? Oh, it's our neighbors, they are fixing the door! But what about dogs? Dogs are often left confused and in a helpless state. Dogs don't understand what is going on.
On top of all that, further stimuli may be added to the list when we expose our dogs to noisy people, crying babies, unknown dogs at daycare, strangers who want to pat the dog on the head, scary stimuli on walks and hyperactive children who chase the dog down to get him to play. So do dogs live in a stressful world? Not all of them of course, but we must sometimes marvel at how adaptive our dogs are to be able to hold it together with all this overload of stimuli we expose them on a daily basis!
“Research has shown that dogs are among the most adaptable of animals. Most dog guardians have thus assumed that it is the dog’s job to adjust to whatever environment we offer them—no matter how stressful.
In this case, perhaps our dogs’ willingness to do anything for us has become their Achilles’ heel—the result of their total compliance is that canines are more stressed than ever before.”
— Joshua Leeds and Susan Wagner
While many dogs are capable of coping with stimuli, and others eventually adapt, some others may not. When dogs are bombarded with stimuli that they perceive as alarming, frightening or threatening, a series of physiological responses activate, triggering the fight or flight response.
When this happens, the dog's sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that work on keeping the dog out of danger and upping the odds of survival. Blood flows to the big muscles so the dog can sprint to action, the heart beats faster, the pupils dilate and the dog experiences an adrenaline rush associated with other physiological changes.
Chronic overstimulation causes dogs to be in this state of high alert for continuous periods of time, which can lead to overdrive. Following are some potential signs of overstimulated dogs.
How can overstimulated dogs be helped? If we look at the life dogs were meant to live, they would be exposed to auditory stimuli that are found in a natural setting. Birds chirping, cows in the field and night owls are sounds the dog is likely to understand, especially if he is raised on a farm. Yet, we don't have to make a radical move to help our companions who live in an urban setting. There are several steps to make life less stressful for them. Here are a few tips.
Puppies go through a critical window of socialization which takes generally place between the age of 4 weeks and 16 weeks. This is an optimal time to expose them to all the sights, sounds and smells that the puppy will likely be exposed to for the rest of his life. Getting a puppy used to the sound of the phone, the vacuum, the sight of people on bikes, children, cars and everything else that he'll be likely to encounter in life, will up the chances that the puppy will accept the whole stimulus package as normal.
Many dog owners do not realize how their dogs feel when they're left alone at home for a good part of the day. Recording the dog's behavior in the owner's absence can provide important insight as to how he is feeling. Many dogs cope poorly with sounds when their owners are away as they are deprived of the reassuring presence of the owners.
If your dog appears to get stressed by sounds you can provide some form of white noise to muffle the sounds. Try turning on the radio, playing music (Through a dog's ear) or running an exhaust fan. Of course, use these sounds only if they seem to have a soothing effect on your dog. It also helps to turn down noises a notch. Lower the TV volume, do not create excessive commotion when your favorite team wins, play the radio at a lower volume, tell your guests not to use the doorbell (let them call you in advance).
Dogs who spend their time barking at outdoors stimuli either behind a window or screen door, benefit from blocking visual access. This can be accomplished by placing non-see through adhesives on windows or keeping the dog in a room that doesn't allow visual access to the outdoors. Dogs who bark at triggers in the yard may benefit from special fences
Calming aids such as DAP diffusers, DAP collars, body wraps, calming capes and nutriceuticals can help take the edge off and help dogs better cope with stressful stimuli.
Just like humans, animals feel reassured by predictable interactions and consequences, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist, Debra F. Horwitz. When you disrupt your dog's schedules or lifestyles, this can trigger stress and anxiety. Try your best to stick to a routine.
Dog owners are often told that exercise can help their dog in many ways. Exercise your dog and he'll behave better, a tired dog is a good dog etc. Exercise seems to have become a panacea for all dog problems, but it's important to realize that exercise can also be overstimulating and can heighten a dog's level of reactivity. This article explains how overexcitement can cause high levels of stress hormones in the dog's bloodstream. Better options may be engaging in exercise in a controlled setting along with mental exercise.
You can help your dog better cope with noises through desensitization and counterconditioning. Turn that beeping sound into something your dog loves forward to hear! See the "hear that method" for a sample. Dogs who react to visual stimuli may benefit from the "Look at that' method. Find a dog behavior professional to help you implement these methods.
As seen, there are several ways you can help your dog better cope with stimuli in his life. By helping your dog, you may be able to have a less stressed companion who is more likely to relax. On top of that, with less stress in his life, you will be opening the lines of communication so that your dog has more energy to focus on training (and bonding with you) rather than over worrying about stimuli that really pose no harm to him.
© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli
Bob Dogowner on August 24, 2018:
Neutriceuticals? They don't work in humans, either.... (except for placebo responders. Do you really know anything about dogs, or are you one of those "feel-good/do-gooders" that want to feel important and knowledgeable? You're certainly prolific on the internet, so you do have a large community of dolts to buy crap information such as I see all too frequently on your site.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 29, 2015:
Dogs are amazing pets. Useful tips for dogs when overstimulated.
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 29, 2015:
Very informative article indeed. I believe it applies to two of my sweet neighbours, whose dogs are definitely over-stimulated. But they are sweet dogs too.
On the contrary, I think my dog is living a bored life, because I am able to spend only little time with him. He gets over-stimulated when he sees other dogs while I am walking him or are on a long duration hike with him.
Bob Bamberg on October 29, 2015:
Interesting hub full of valuable information, Adrienne. I see overstimulated dogs all the time. I spend 5 hours a day, 6 days a week in various pet supply stores, and when people bring their dogs in, they tend to get overwhelmed by all the smells, sounds and the presence of strangers and other dogs. Most dogs won't even take a treat from me under those conditions. They're too busy reacting to the environment. A lot of owners just think the dog is "excited" and don't do anything to address the situation.
There are a wide variety of symptoms that have been found to be associated with sensory overload. These symptoms can occur in both children and adults. Some of these symptoms are:
Sensory overload can result from the overstimulation of any of the senses.
Sensory overload has been found to be associated with other disorders and conditions such as:
There are many different ways to treat sensory overload. One is to reduce this tension is to participate in occupational therapy however, there are many ways for people with symptoms to reduce it themselves. Being able to identify one's own triggers of sensory overload can help reduce, eliminate, or avoid them.  Most often the quickest way to ease sensory overload symptoms is to remove oneself from the situation. Deep pressure against the skin combined with proprioceptive input that stimulates the receptors in the joints and ligaments often calms the nervous system. Reducing sensory input such as eliminating distressing sounds and lowering the lights can help. Calming, focusing on music works for some. If a quick break does not relieve the problem, an extended rest is advised. People with sensory processing issues may benefit from a sensory diet of activities and accommodations designed to prevent sensory overload and retrain the brain to process sensory input more typically. It is important in situations of sensory overload to calm oneself and return to a normal level. 
There are three different methods to address sensory overload: avoidance, setting limits, and meditation. The process of avoidance involves creating a more quiet and orderly environment. This includes keeping the noise to a minimum and reducing the sense of clutter. To prevent sensory overload, it is important to rest before big events and focus one's attention and energy on one thing at a time. Setting limits involves restricting the amount of time spent on various activities and selecting settings to carefully avoid crowds and noise. One may also limit interactions with specific people to help prevent sensory overload. 
It can be difficult to distinguish and understand information when experiencing sensory overload. Even such meaningless stimuli such as white noise or flickering lights may induce sensory overload.  Sensory overload is common among consumers as many corporations compete with each other especially when advertising. Advertisers will use the best colours, words, sounds, textures, designs and much more to get the attention of a customer.  This can influence the consumer, as they will be drawn to a product that is more attention grabbing.  However, policy makers and advertisers must be aware that too much information or attention-grabbing products can cause sensory overload.
Implications of public policy in regards to information overload have two main assumptions.  The assumptions the policymakers have are, first, to assume that consumers have a great deal of processing capacity and a great deal of time to process information.  Secondly, consumers can always absorb the information without serious concern about how much information has been presented.  As researchers have pointed out, policymakers should better understand the difference between the process and availability of information.  This will help decrease the possibility of information overload. In some cases, the time to process such information in a commercial can be 6 out of 30 seconds.  This can lead consumers confused and overloaded with such fast-paced information thrown at them. To understand how consumers process information three factors must be analyzed. Factors such as the amount of information given, the source of corrective information and the way in which it is all presented to the consumer.  Different types of media have different processing demands. An optimal outcome for policy makers to influence advertisers to try is to present information through a TV commercial stating simple facts about a product and then encourage the audience to check out their website for more details. Therefore, their quick processing time of a commercial was not overloaded with information thus saving the consumer from sensory overload.
Consumers today are forced to learn to cope with overloading and an abundance of information,  through the radio, billboards, television, newspapers and much more. Information is everywhere and being thrown at consumers from every angle and direction. Therefore, Naresh K. Malhotra, author of the paper "Information and Sensory Overload", presents the following guidelines.  First, consumers must try to limit the intake of external information and sensory inputs to avoid sensory overload.  This can be done by tuning out irrelevant information presented by the media and marketers to get the attention of the consumer. Second, record important information externally rather than mentally. Information can be easily forgotten mentally once the individual becomes overloaded by their sense.  Thus it is recommended for a consumer to write down important information rather than store it mentally. Third, when examining a product, do not overload their senses by examining more than five products at a time.  This will lead to confusion and frustration.  Fourth, process information where there is less irrelevant information around.  This will eliminate external information and sensory distractions such as white noise and other information presented in an environment. Finally, it is important to make consuming a pleasant and relaxed experience.  This will help diminish the stress, overwhelming feeling, and experience of sensory overload.
Using the senses in marketing can be a useful sales tactic. Most commonly, marketers will take advantage of humans four out of five senses to increase the amount of information being presented to the customer.
Not many studies have been done on sensory overload, but one example of a sensory overload study was reported by Lipowski (1975)  as part of his research review on the topic that discussed the work done by Japanese researchers at Tohoku University. The Tohoku researchers exposed their subjects to intense visual and auditory stimuli presented randomly in a condition of confinement ranging in duration from three to five hours. Subjects showed heightened and sustained arousal as well as mood changes such as aggression, anxiety, and sadness. These results have helped open the door to further research on sensory overload.
Sociologist Georg Simmel contributed to the description of sensory overload in his 1903 essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life". Simmel describes an urban landscape of constant sensory stimuli against which the city-dweller must create a barrier in order to remain sane. For Simmel, the sensory overload of modern urban life depletes the body’s reservoirs of energy, leading, among other things, to a jaded or blasé [blasiert] mentality and a calculating, instrumentalizing approach to others.  Simmel's approach can be compared to Freud's writings on shell shock as well as Walter Benjamin's analysis of "shock" and urban life in his 1939 essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire".
Dog bites are a dangerous risk faced by people who work with animals as well as dog owners. Veterinarians play an important role in their own safety, the safety of their staff and clients, and the welfare of the pets in their care. While the risk of dog bites is high in veterinary practice 1,2 , it is often thought of as an unavoidable aspect of the job.
Dog bites or dog-related injuries are the result of the perfect storm of situation and circumstance. Biting may be directed at either familiar or unfamiliar people of any age as well as other animals. Preventing injuries can only happen if the causes of biting are considered. Pets receiving medical attention at a clinic or being groomed by a professional may be restrained, poked, or prodded during a procedure, triggering a fearful response.
Pain and Fear
Dogs bite in the veterinary hospital because they are afraid or in pain. Dogs who have been in a veterinary setting previously may have developed fear from the experience. Any dog may eventually bite depending on the circumstances, even if other visits have been uneventful.
Think of taking a child to a pediatrician for the first time. Some children are relaxed and calm until they experience the cold end of a stethoscope or the sting of a vaccine. After that first experience, the smell of a doctor’s office or even seeing a person in a white lab coat can cause them to cry out in fear.
Trapped and Helpless
In many veterinary hospitals, the exam room is a small space. Fear can escalate when the pet feels there is no escape. How the owner and professional staff interact or react to the dog can also add to the dog’s apprehension. Coupled with the sounds and smells of the clinic, the dog may be anxious before even getting in to the exam room. Once in the room, the door closes and the owner may tighten the leash or hold the dog tighter, resulting in the dog becoming anxious because she senses a change in how the owner is feeling. Now the dog feels trapped and anxious, triggering the “fight or flight” response.
It doesn’t take much for a dog to quickly become overstimulated at a veterinary clinic or grooming facility. Barking dogs, new people, and all of the sights and sounds can trigger a dog to react. And this is just in the waiting room! Once the dog is placed in a small exam room, all of that anxious energy can explode when the first person enters the room, usually a veterinary technician or veterinarian. It is no surprise that dogs may become “defensively aggressive” to the approaching veterinarian or technician.
Reduce the Fear to Prevent the Bite
Understanding how a dog can quickly become anxious or fearful is an important first step. So how do you mitigate the risk of a dog bite? Once the dog is aroused, her ability to learn something new is diminished. Veterinary team members should strive to use handling procedures that emphasize gentle control while allowing the animal to make choices.
All patients, including those with fear, anxiety, and/or aggression, require gentle and careful handling. Teaching dogs that a veterinary clinic is filled with calm, nonthreatening staff who offer delicious food, consistency in routine, and patience will help reduce stress and the risk of a bite or injury for everyone involved: the dog’s owner, the veterinary staff, and the patient whose welfare is everyone’s goal.
The client communications aspect of this problem is significant as well. Consider the situation from the perspective of the client who thinks of their pet as a family member or even a child.
When a parent takes their (human)child to the doctor, school, or any professional they expect the child to be protected and treated with gentleness and kindness. Imagine taking your son or daughter to get their haircut only to have the stylist have another person hold them down while loud clippers are brought close to their most sensitive body parts, or having a doctor put restraints on your child to give them a vaccine or check their throat if they are sick. It would never happen.
In the same way, when a pet owner takes their dog to a veterinarian or other pet professional they expect their pet to be nurtured just like a human child. They want every experience to be positive, even when the pet is in pain.
Now imagine telling that pet parent that their pet bit someone at the clinic – a vet tech, veterinarian, groomer, or another dog. Is that pet parent going to trust your clinic again, knowing their dog or cat was so scared they bit someone?
National Dog Bite Prevention Week is April 7-13, 2019
The National Dog Bite Prevention Week Coalition is comprised of organizations committed to reducing the number dog bites trough education. Members include State Farm, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.), and American Humane.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
This article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends at State Farm.
We bet you and your dog have a lot in common, including your love of the great outdoors! Enhance your pooch's outdoor experience with a sensory garden designed with him in mind.
Yelling at your dog to get out of the garden is so last decade. Building a garden especially for your dog is the new thing. It’s called a pet sensory garden, or an enrichment garden, and you fill it with plants and features that spark your fur baby’s canine instincts.
Photo by: iStock/ChristopherBernard
A sensory garden appeals to a dog’s strongest sense: smell. Scientists estimate a dog’s nose to be tens of thousands of times more sensitive to odor than ours. If their eyes were as strong as their noses, what a human can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away. And the part of their brain that’s devoted to analyzing those smells is, proportionally, 40 times greater than ours. So get a dog sniffing, and you get his mind working.
“Each smell is like reading a different book for a dog,” says Dr. Julie Albright, assistant professor of veterinary behavior and the PetSafe Chair of Small Animal Behavioral Research at the University of Tennessee Vet School. So look at enrichment garden as building a library for your dog.
A dog smelling a chamomile flower.
Enrichment gardens got their start at animal shelters looking for ways to de-stress dogs who were cooped up in kennels. Steve Hill, an animal behaviorist at the Bath Cats and Dogs Home, had noticed how fascinated his own dogs were with his herb garden, sniffing and sometimes eating the plants. So he built a sensory garden for the dogs at the shelter and filled it with plants known to have medicinal properties, like chamomile and rosemary. He included a muddy area for the dogs to walk in and a sand pit for dogs to dig in. Hill began letting the shelter dogs loose in the garden, and the results were immediate. “Nervous dogs would explore the garden, and you could see them calm down. Timid dogs would get more confident and play and explore more,” he says.
Science backs up Hill’s observations. Researchers at Queens University Belfast found that dogs exposed to the scent of lavender and chamomile oils spent more time quiet and resting, while dogs exposed to rosemary and peppermint pepped up, playing and barking more. Scent investigation, as it’s called, makes a dog happier and healthier.
Your pet’s body language can say a lot about how relaxed or stressed your dog or cat feels. “We’re naturally attuned to stress in other people,” Dr. Becker says. “We know what a happy dog looks like, but what does a stressed pet look like? Stress increases cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, which over time can lead to long-term metabolic conditions.”
Major indicators of stress to watch out for in dogs include:
For cats, keep an eye out for these signs:
Fortunately, some of the stress your dog or cat experiences is perfectly natural — like when they play — since it can keep your pet engaged and stimulated, allowing him or her to feel new sensations and learn new things. But chronic stress can lead to health issues. If you see any of the symptoms above, check with your veterinarian right away to eliminate any medical problems.