Arousal is a commonly used word when it comes to dog training but what does it actually mean and what do you need to know about it? Arousal is really fancy dog trainer academic speak for energy levels. There are some more intricacies to the word that imply certain physiological responses to high/low arousal situations, however for the purposes what an owner needs to know, energy levels will suffice as an understanding. (No there is no sexual connotation to arousal in this context!) You’ll most often hear arousal in the context of arousal states, high/low arousal or over aroused. Each of these are important to understand, especially if you have a reactive dog or a dog with behaviour problems.
The phrase ‘arousal states’ is generally used in regard to a dog being in too high/low of one. It gets a little tricky here as arousal doesn’t really occur on a single spectrum. We’ve got to introduce the idea of valence. Simply, valence refers to how good/bad an emotion is. When combined with valence, arousal refers to the energy levels an emotional has. For example, you can have low arousal high valence emotions (low energy good emotions) such as relaxed, calm, content, etc. When people refer to arousal levels that are too high/low, often the concept of valence is left out. A dog in low arousal but positive valence might be a bad thing at an agility show where you want high arousal positive valence. In a Reactive Rovers class high arousal positive valence is going to be harder to work with than medium or low arousal positive valence. Obviously, in any situation a negative emotional valence is rarely desired. But if we’re only looking at arousal and ignoring valence, it doesn’t matter what arousal state your dog is in if we’re in the wrong valence for your desired result.
Over aroused I think is sometimes confused with valence and takes the blame for a dog being in the wrong emotional state but given that I addressed that in the last paragraph, I’ll leave that there and assume for the purposes of this paragraph that over aroused is only being used to describe arousal level. Over aroused generally means the dog is too energetic to effectively learn what we currently want them to learn. Even in places like the agility field there is such a thing as too much arousal! For each dog and each training exercise, there is a level of arousal that is optimum for that dog to be working at. This differs for each dog and each context and each exercise you train. Finding that perfect arousal level can make all the difference to your training as is the perfect mental state to be teaching your dog most effectively. If you like the phrase ‘work smarter, not harder’, working smarter is having your dog in their optimal arousal zone for what you’re training.
Things that can affect arousal level, in order to help you work your dog at optimum arousal are (this is in no way an exhaustive list):
- Reinforcement type (food versus toy/type of food versus another type of food), reinforcement placement (delivered to mouth or thrown for dog to chase and catch)
- Your energy levels (are you in a high or low arousal state? Generally, you want to view your arousal state as trying to meet your dog half way, if you’re a 2 and you need a 5/6 out of 10, you place yourself at a 3/4 and work up to 5/6 until your dog can meet you there, reverse this if you need to lower your dog’s arousal)
- Environment, some environments wind dogs up, some chill them out. For some dogs a certain environment can be like taking a child to Disneyland (if you have a terrier this is every environment that’s outside your front door). For ease of writing, I’m also including things in the environment, such as presence of other dogs or people, their distance from your dog and their arousal levels all under environment as well.