My adolescent puppy, Bones, plays hard. He loves running so, when he runs, he runs fast and hard, and puts everything into it. When he plays ball, he wants it thrown over and over and over. He even puts his all into playing the commercial brain games.
A dog who obsesses over play can quickly become annoying, “Throw the ball! Throw the ball! Throw the ball!” Therefore, teaching Bones to calm down when the play session was over has been important. My goal for him was to be still and then be calm when I ask him to; and then to learn how to calm himself. Although this initially wasn’t something he wanted to do, he has learned how to calm himself and relax when I ask him to do so.
I saw Bones’ competitiveness and desire to play hard even as a young puppy. I knew that this would not change as he grew up, so I made it a point to begin teaching calm and self-control right away.
I began by teaching Bones to sit first and, when he could sit when I asked him to, I used that as his first self-control exercise. For example, I would toss his ball for him with his leash on, letting him drag it as he played. After a few throws of the ball, I would gently take hold of the leash and then, using a treat as a cue, I asked him to sit. When he sat he got the treat, verbal praise, and some gentle slow petting. I used gentle and slow petting to calm him. After ten to fifteen seconds (keep it short for puppies) I released him and threw his ball again.
Gradually I increased the time I asked him to hold the sit before I released him to play again. When he was twelve weeks old he was holding the sit for thirty seconds. This is forever for a puppy of this age.
It’s normal for puppies to lose their mind during play, and Bones did this at times too. For example, if Bones got over-stimulated, he may lose his temper with one of the other dogs, or he might refuse to sit with help, or he may fight the leash. Other puppies might show this in other ways; just watch and pay attention.
If, at some point during his play, he became over-stimulated, I stepped in and interrupted the play. I would give him a gentle massage, or just hold him (if I could do this without him fighting me), or I would put him in his crate for a time out. The time out isn’t punishment (No yelling at him!), but rather it’s a time for him to relax.
Calming Adult Dogs
Adolescent puppies (nine to fourteen months of age as a general rule) and adult dogs can become over-stimulated too. Some will lose their cool when playing, as puppies do, or it can happen when guests come to the house. A vigorous play session tends to be the most common reason for dogs to lose their cool, however.
The first step to calming your dog is to calm yourself. If you are excited, frustrated, or angry, your dog will react to that. So calm yourself; take some deep breaths or even walk away for a few minutes. Then come back and work with your dog.
Practice your dog’s obedience skills, especially sit, down, and stay. At various times in your dog’s daily routine (when he’s not excited) ask him to do the down and stay commands at a specific spot or spots in the house. Keep the down stays short in the beginning, but then ask your dog to hold still for a few minutes at a time.
When your dog can do this, then, with a leash on him, interrupt play and ask him to down and stay in one of the spots. After a few minutes, release him and let him play again. The play becomes a reward for holding still.
During the day, when your dog is relaxed and calm on his own, reward him. Quietly tell him, “Good boy!” Drop a treat in front of him or reach down and rub his ears. Keep these rewards calm though, so you don’t get him excited. Praise the calm.
Don’t expect your puppy or adult to be able to immediately stop all excitement and become calm and quiet. There is no switch to turn off the excitement. People can even have a hard time doing this and asking a dog to do it without help will be unreasonable.
However, with your help, your puppy or dog can learn some self-control and to calm himself. Use your dog’s obedience skills, remain calm yourself, and be gentle. Most of all, don’t forget to reward the calm.