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Hyperactivity in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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With worldwide recognition of attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD) in children, many people are now wondering whether their overly boisterous, easily distractible dogs are suffering from a similar disorder.

The answer is probably not, but there are rare cases when the evidence does seem to support such a diagnosis. If your veterinarian tells you that hyperactivity in dogs is commonplace, he or she may be confusing ADHD with over-activity or hyper-reactivity, which are different. Some of the conditions that can be confused with hyperactivity include:

  • Normal Puppy Behavior. Many young pups appear overly active, disobedient and uncontrollable. That's because they are. Young pups take a while to learn voice commands and appropriate responses. In fact, they have so much energy and exuberance they can barely contain themselves during instructional sessions. For this reason, educating young pups should be done in short 15-minute sessions with realistic expectations of the level of attention that can be achieved. Expect your puppy to "crash" after a bout of physical activity (or a rigorous training session).

  • Overactive Adult Dogs. Certain breeds, especially those developed for fieldwork, seem as if they're in perpetual motion. In the typical domestic situation, such dogs may appear to have boundless energy even as they approach late middle age. These dogs are displaying high activity levels, a quality for which they were originally developed. Normal everyday life is just not enough for such highly tuned individuals. Owners often find that they have to engage in high energy, extra-curricular work like fly ball or agility training to help such dogs blow off excess steam.

  • Pseudo-hyperactivity. Some dogs of medium-to-high activity level may appear to be hyperactive or overactive if they don't get enough physical or mental stimulation. This cabin fever-like situation arises in dogs that spend many hours confined, sometimes in crates or in single rooms of the house, while both "parents" work and later sleep. These dogs may behave as if they are trying to cram 24 hours of fun into a one- or two-hour window of time, which is close to the truth.

    For such dogs, reorganizing their lifestyle to provide appropriate exercise and entertainment can go a long way toward resolving this version of "hyperactivity."

  • Highly Reactive Dogs. Certain breeds of dog are more reactive than others. Breeds that might have been considered reactive have changed somewhat since early days but, nonetheless, reactive dogs still abound. The reactive dog, as opposed to the hyperactive dog, is one that reacts to every miniscule event in his environment with extraordinary (and only slowly waning) bursts of energy. If an icicle falls, leaves blow, or footsteps are heard on the path, such dogs go practically berserk, careening around the house, leaping up on couches, barking wildly, flailing and jumping in extraordinary kinetic displays and never seems to slow down. For some of these dogs, the pseudo-overactivity explanation may be part of the problem, too.

  • Attention-seeking Behavior. Dogs can learn to behave in almost any conceivable way if they are rewarded for it by their owners. If you pay attention to a dog only when he is barking, jumping, or otherwise making a nuisance of himself, that's the behavior you will encourage. Basically, you are reinforcing unwanted behaviors. And remember, any attention is better than no attention for a needy dog - even when its in the form of scolding. The way to reverse learned "hyperactive" behavior is to reverse the reward schedule - paying attention to your dog when he is being good and ignoring him when he is misbehaving. Sometimes a bridging stimulus, such as a duck-call, will help focus a dog's attention prior to you taking no further notice of him. Employing this technique will expedite the results of attention-withdrawal.

  • ADHD. Dogs this condition must (by definition) show poor attention span and have high levels of motor activity despite an apparently appropriate environment and lifestyle. In the home setting and in the clinic, they are virtually in constant motion, jumping around and reacting to even the mildest environmental perturbation. The only time they're quiet is when they're asleep - and even then they may twitch a lot. The energy level of these dogs is practically breathtaking both for the dog and observer. If a dog with a provisional diagnosis of hyperactivity comes into a veterinarian's consulting room and falls asleep on the floor, it does not have ADHD. A fairly easy way for a veterinarian to make a provisional diagnosis of hyperactivity is to see how he feels after the consultation. If he is glad to get out of the room – because the dog's behavior was so difficult to endure – then the dog may have hyperactivity. If a veterinarian finds he can tolerate the dog quite well, then the dog probably does not have the condition. Dogs with true hyperactivity may not be presented with that as the description of their behavior. Instead, owners may report that the dog runs in circles, is always jumping around like a kangaroo, or barks incessantly. Aggression and pushy attention-seeking behavior are other behaviors often associated with hyperactivity.

    The true test of ADHD is to give the dog a stimulant, say methylphenidate (Ritalin®) or D-amphetamine (Dexedrine®), under controlled clinical conditions, and to observe changes in heart rate, respiratory rate, and behavior. For a dog with ADHD, all these parameters will be reduced.

    Long-term management of these patients is by appropriate management coupled with treatment with psychostimulants. Longer acting stimulants are useful because of the dog's rapid metabolic rate and exceptional detoxification abilities. While Ritalin® and Dexedrine® are sometimes effective, newer drugs, like Adderall®, may prove even more effective.

    Hyperactivity (or ADHD), as we currently understand it, is a genetic condition. It is rare and can only be diagnosed by a veterinarian or a behaviorist. If your dog seems hyperactive, you should first look at lifestyle issues, his environment, management, and rewards. Most likely one or more of these factors will underlie the "hyperactive" behavior – but if not, ADHD remains a remote possibility.

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