What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload, sometimes called overstimulation, occurs when dogs get overwhelmed by external stimuli. Sensory overload can cause a slew of other problems like hyperactivity, reactivity, compulsive behaviors, and even aggression.
When a dog experiences sensory information (such as hearing a noise, smelling food, or feeling something on their skin), the nerve endings in their body will send a series of electrical and chemical signals through the neurons to the brain for processing. A dog is constantly bombarded with sensory information about their surroundings, but when that sensory input becomes too much, it can overwhelm the dog, causing sensory overload.
How do you tell if your dog is overstimulated? How can you help your dog with sensory overload? Read on for answers to these questions, plus a few more!
Symptoms of Sensory Overload in Dogs
The symptoms of sensory overload can manifest in many different ways depending on the dog’s personality. Here are a few physical and behavioral indicators that a dog may be experiencing sensory overload:
Causes of Sensory Overload in Dogs
Several things can cause sensory overload — strong smells, noisy environments, or overwhelming visual stimuli. Overstimulation is rarely a result of just one type of stimulus. More often, sensory overload occurs when a dog experiences an overwhelming amount of auditory, visual, tactile, and olfactory information at one time. Below are some examples of situations that might cause sensory overload in canines.
- Being around a lot of people or animals
- Energetic, fast-paced environments (particularly if the environment is new)
- Exposure to a variety of smells at once (like in a city)
- Being touched or petted by many people at once
- Loud noises or excessive auditory stimuli (remember, dogs have better hearing and can hear at frequencies humans can't)
- Rapid changes in scenery, such as riding in a car or walking on a busy street
Diagnosis of Sensory Overload in Dogs
To diagnose sensory overload, vets rely heavily on information from the pet parents. A vet will ask questions about the dog’s symptoms and what environmental factors prelude symptom onset. They'll also ask about any recent life changes (such as moving homes or losing a family member) that may have caused the behavior to arise or worsen.
The vet may want to perform preliminary blood and urine tests to rule out health conditions that could cause abnormal behavior. If all the tests come back normal, the vet will likely refer the dog to a behavior specialist.
Treatment of Sensory Overload in Dogs
Decrease exposure to stimuli
The most obvious way to prevent sensory overload is to decrease the dog's exposure to sensory information. And while this can prevent sensory overload in the short term, it doesn't offer a lasting solution for when the dog inevitably encounters excessive stimuli in the future.
Socialization is crucial for dogs who get overstimulated around other pets. However, pet parents should be cautious when socializing a dog prone to sensory overload — especially if the dog becomes reactive when they feel overwhelmed.
Socialization should occur in a controlled setting under close supervision, ideally with a handler for each dog. It's important to keep interactions calm and low-key since high-energy interactions can cause can intensify a dog's response and increase the likelihood of sensory overload.
Exercise and mental stimulation
A simple way pet parents can reduce the chances of sensory overload is to ensure their dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation throughout the day. Mental and physical stimulation help dogs relax and may make them less likely to become overstimulated when exposed to external stimuli.
Many behaviorists suggest counterconditioning, a form of behavior modification, to address overstimulation in dogs. The idea behind counterconditioning is to create new mental associations that encourage the dog to respond positively to their triggers.
For instance, if a dog becomes overstimulated and reactive when around other animals, a trainer may expose the dog to another dog in a controlled setting and offer the dog high-value treats to create a positive association in the dog's mind.
Behavioral Adjustment Training
Dogs with severe reactivity or very low thresholds for external stimuli may benefit from Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT), a more advanced behavior modification method. BAT encourages dogs to ignore sensory information that typically elicits a negative response.
BAT is a good option for dogs triggered by specific stimuli, such as being around strangers. BAT trainers will expose the dog to their trigger from a distance and gradually move the dog closer to their trigger, watching for their response and rewarding the dog when they disengage. Over time, this will train dogs to disregard specific stressors rather than fixating on them and becoming overwhelmed.
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Recovery of Sensory Overload in Dogs
Successful management of sensory overload will require the pet parents to work closely with behaviorists and trainers to continue behavior modification both at home and in a professional setting. Pet parents will need to practice training techniques and respond appropriately to overstimulation during outings to keep stress levels low.
If a dog becomes overwhelmed during an outing, parents should remain calm and be careful not to reward negative behavior. Dogs prone to sensory overload will also need regular exercise and mental stimulation to reduce their responses to excessive sensory stimuli.
If symptoms worsen or new behavioral issues arise, pet parents should follow up with their vet for further testing. In extreme cases, medication may be necessary. It may take weeks or months of intensive training to get a dog's symptoms under control, but working to prevent regression may be a lifelong process.
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Cost of Sensory Overload in Dogs
Between vet visits, consultations with behavioral specialists, and specialized training, you can expect to pay between $600 and $900 for diagnosis and treatment of sensory overload.