Updated: Nov 18, 2020
I recently finished a training program with a one year old bully breed mix who was off the walls psycho. For privacy purposes, we'll just refer to the dog as Bella.
What observable behaviors was I seeing that led me to label Bella as "off the walls psycho" when I met her?
She would bombard her humans and any guests upon entry with intense, full body weight jumping that took anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes to completely die down, she was in a constant state of over-arousal that led to excessive panting, tense facial and body muscles, occasional pacing, and an inability to settle and relax around the house, she erratically pulled at the end of her leash on walks and wasn't able to disengage from any moving stimuli once she walked out of her front door (even with her people pulling back on her leash and yelling her name), she wasn't willing to take high value foods presented right in front of her mouth outside her home, and she would regularly destroy inappropriate chewing items like shoes, clothes, indoor and outdoor wood furniture, and backyard landscaping.
While Bella would likely be an eligible candidate for veterinarian prescribed behavior modification medication, her family opted to try alternative routes. We spent the first three weeks of her five week program just trying to "get the crazy under control," as I would tell her mom. Her brain was swimming in elevated levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, which essentially kept her in a constant low level state of panic. Bella was not in a place where she was capable of effective learning because her brain told her she was just surviving.
So... What got the crazy under control and put this family's wild child into a mental space where she felt safe again and could start learning effectively during our sessions together?
Twenty minute sniff walks.
Yep, seriously. That's it.
After I made this recommendation during our third session, Bella's mom started taking her on twenty minute neighborhood walks everyday to sniff whatever she wanted at her own pace. She's allowed to be at the end of her leash so long as she's not yanking anyone's arm off. She usually goes out on a leash that's fifteen feet long to allow her some extra freedom. They don't need to stray far from home. They regularly reinforce her for just being a dog and doing dog things.
Within a week, the change we saw in Bella's behavior was astronomical.
I showed up for our fourth session and there was no excessive panting, the jumping ceased after about five minutes, her body language and movements were so much more relaxed, and her capacity to be responsive to her people in the outside world increased by volumes.
During our last two sessions, we were able to build solid foundations for loose leash walking because she was able to engage with her people, we started teaching her that staying inside when the front door opens is way more exciting than making a break for it, we could call her away from dogs behind fences, kids on bikes, and people getting in and out of cars on walks.
Bella will likely always struggle with some level of over-arousal in over stimulating environments and is generally a high-energy dog, but changing the way we implemented exercise for her led to so many positive behavior changes. Her family finally had their light-at-end-of-the-tunnel moment with her.
Sniffing is a highly decompressing activity for dogs. It releases dopamine, serotonin, and healthy endorphins into the system. This change in brain function acts as a catalyst for healthy behavior change and mental tiredness, which gives us happy dogs that settle more peacefully for longer periods of time.