By Dr. Becker
If your canine companion is tightly wound... wired... has no desire (ever) to settle down, relax, regroup... you probably refer to him as being hyperactive or suffering from ADHD.
But even though the term is widely used in our society today, the actual clinical syndrome of hyperactivity is rare in canines.
According to Clinician's Brief, true hyperactivity involves "... overactivity, attention deficits, impulsivity, high testing physiologic parameters and a paradoxical calming response to amphetamines."
It's probably more accurate to label most dogs who are hyperactive as 'hyperkinetic.'
These dogs don't ever seem to get used to the normal sights, sounds, and smells of their environment.
They are reactive -- which is to say they overreact -- to ordinary stimuli in their everyday lives.
And they seem unable to rest, no matter how quiet the surroundings or comfy the bedding.
Clinically Hyperactive/Hyperkinetic Dogs are Rare
Veterinarians generally agree that most symptoms of hyperactivity as described by the dogs' owners, upon closer inspection are the result of breed characteristics, conditioned behavior, lack of appropriate physical and mental stimulation, or a combination.
In clinical cases of hyperkinesis, the dogs are usually 3 years or older (well past the age of boundless puppy energy) and haven't learned to settle -- to go with the flow.
These dogs typically have increased heart and respiratory rates, low (poor) body condition scores, reactivity, and agitation. They are emotionally aroused by routine stimuli and often stay in a state of arousal long after the stimuli is removed.
These are the poor dogs who react every single morning to the sound of the blender being turned on. Or when the kids run up or down the stairs to the second floor -- no matter how many times a day that happens. Or at the sound of the garbage truck at the curb twice a week, every week.
Abnormal Behavior... or Annoying Behavior?
There's a big and important difference between canine behavior that is abnormal, and behavior that is actually normal given the dog's circumstances, but undesirable.
Your veterinarian or animal behavior specialist1 will need a detailed description of your dog's unwanted behaviors, and how often she performs them, and to what degree or intensity.
He'll also need to know about how much physical and mental activity your pet gets on a daily basis, including exercise, social interaction, playtime and exploration.
You should also be prepared to discuss what a normal day is like for your pet -- when she eats, exercises, and is engaged in other stimulating, enriching activities, and how much time she spends confined and/or alone.
You'll also be asked how you and other family members respond to your dog's undesirable behaviors.
All these factors will have bearing on a dog's behavior, including whether the pet is:
- Alone or ignored much of the time
- Isn't receiving adequate exercise
- Hasn't been obedience trained
- Has been conditioned through an owner's responses to use physical activity as an attention-getting device
- Is punished for unwanted behavior rather than rewarded for desired behavior
If, for example, you notice your dog is much easier to be around after he's spent an hour out back playing with your children, you can reasonably assume the social interaction and physical energy he expended playing with the kids has a positive effect on his behavior.
Per the British Small Animal Veterinary Association's Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine2:
It is very important to determine whether the dog's need for activity, social interaction, mental stimulation and environmental enrichment are being met on a daily basis. In some cases the environment is not providing for the pet's needs and the hyperactivity is based on attempts to fulfill those needs. In other situations, inconsistent interactions between owner and pet lead to hypervigilance and reactivity.
Diagnosis of Hyperkinesis
In order to diagnose true clinical hyperkinesis in a dog, a number of other potential causes for the unwanted behavior must be ruled out as well. These include:
- Conditioning (the dog has been rewarded for the undesirable behavior)
- Phobias and anxiety disorders
- Hyperthyroidism, allergies or another medical condition
- Cognitive decline
Obviously, if any of these problems are in play, they must be addressed first and in addition to the problem of hyperactivity.
If all potential root causes for hyperactive behavior are ruled out, the traditional method for diagnosing hyperkinesis is to observe the dog in a hospital setting.
The dog is put in a quiet location and her physical activity is recorded for an hour. Her heart and respiratory rate are measured every 15 to 30 minutes. If both her activity level and physiologic measures remain elevated, she is considered suspicious for hyperkinesis.
She is then given a stimulant and put in an alternate quiet area. At least an hour later, she's taken back to the testing area. If she is behaving in a calm manner and her heart rate and respiration are reduced, she is diagnosed with hyperkinesis.
A variation of the in-hospital study can be conducted at home over several days, but often the results are considered unreliable due to the influence of owner bias.
What to Do If Your Dog Seems Hyperactive
Since only a very small percentage of dogs are clinically hyperkinetic, I recommend you evaluate your dog's lifestyle from every angle as a first step.
- Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise. Take daily walks with your pet and find other ways to get him physically active as often as possible.
- Provide mental stimulation with puzzles, treat-release toys, hikes and other outdoor activities that appeal to your dog's natural instincts.
- Focus on desired behaviors your dog performs rather than on what you don't want him to do. Dogs respond to positive reinforcement behavior modification, which does not include punishment.
- Enroll your dog in an obedience class or an activity that helps your dog focus, such as nose work3.
- Feed your dog a balanced, species-appropriate diet to avoid food intolerances or allergies common in dogs fed low-quality commercial pet food. Food sensitivity can contribute to restless, hyperkinetic behavior, not to mention less than optimal health.
- Discuss supplements such as L-theanine, GABA and valerian root with your integrative vet.
Once you feel sure the lifestyle you're providing your pet gives him plenty of outlets for physical activity and mental stimulation, if your furry buddy is still hyperactive more often than not, I recommend making an appointment with your vet.
It's important at this point to investigate potential underlying physical or emotional causes for your dog's unwanted behavior.