Subject line: Arousal by Marie Turner-Bailie
In the beginning of October 2022 I went to the Clinical Animal Behavior Conference (CABC) in Las Vegas. This conference was a great way to keep my knowledge fresh and connect with veterinarians and other passionate members of the animal wellbeing industry. With talks like “What’s in a diagnosis? The role of behavior professionals”, “Pandemic pups- separation anxiety and beyond”, and “Cooperation Care Training and Consent Behaviors'’ how could I pass it up? However, Lindsay Wood Brown’s “Arousal: Science not Sex” was what had caught my eye. So many dogs I have worked with in the last year have been adolescent pups and most of them had high arousal. I was hoping that Lindsay Wood Brown MA, ACAAB, KPA CTP could shed more light on the subject.
The speaker, Lindsay, started it off as a group study. Our group was made up of Veterinarians, Vet Techs, Dog Trainers and a few more people with different titles that fall into the animal world. For Lindsay the subject of arousal came about due to dogs being in the shelter and trying to decide which dog is adoptable.
What is arousal? What does it look like? How do we define arousal? Many of our dogs experience high arousal, over arousal and just arousal. We’re told, “Your dog has high arousal!” Ok, we think, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a problem? Some of us would say yes, but why might they want that. Did you know in most dog sports it is desirable to have a dog to have a high arousal? Are you ready to head down the rabbit hole to try and answer some of these questions?
Lindsay said arousal was a construct. *Construct (noun) an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence (pulled from google search which is pulled from Oxford Languages).
If arousal is a construct, and something that is considered subjective, at this point I was wondering if arousal was even real or just a label to explain when dogs get excited. There are a lot of words I wonder about! By the end of the talk, I learned that thinking about arousal as a good or bad thing is missing the point. It's about the dog’s perception of valence. Don't worry we're not bringing back high school psychology today. Valance is another great word I added to my vocabulary.' Valence refers to whether the mood is positive or negative. This refers to us as well. I found the more I learn about dog behavior the more I learn about people and our reactions. So think about that ball driven dog high arousal and more positive valance, right? Now think about a fearful dog and the doorbell rings. Arousal goes up, but who is coming in? If it's someone they don’t know or trust now you have high arousal due to the doorbell but moving into a more negative valence due to anticipation of what they have experienced before. Is arousal real? I say yes! It is present at all times. It is another term to help create a clearer picture of what a dog does, but it is not good or bad on its own!
It is about what you do with it!
So, what do you do with arousal? Remember my reference to sports dogs? A high arousal can help a dog run faster, be determined and keep them in a positive headspace to accomplish a desired task. Also, you know what, you do it when you are training and getting the dog invested in you for a specific challenge. When you are making fun noises or tossing a treat, arousal happens.
For those of us not competing, finding time to use a high positive arousal can be challenging. So we add outlets to keep the dogs in the lower arousal state with a positive association. Outlets we use might be lickmats, snuffle mats, Kongs and other enrichment or puzzle toys. Now of course you need to check and see how those puzzles affect your dog's arousal and valence, because each dog is an individual and has their own experiences.
In conclusion, I hope this gave you a better understanding of arousal. Lindsay sure did give my mind a twist on this subject. The word arousal became so much more complicated, but so much more clearer. Maybe next time you, someone else or your dog is reacting to something you can pause and think about where they might fail on the chart with arousal and valence. Maybe it will give you insight on how to react or just understand them a little more.