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EXCESSIVE NIGHTTIME ACTIVITY: DOGS
CAUSES OF EXCESSIVE NIGHTTIME ACTIVITY
Medical problems and behavior problems are possible causes of excessive nighttime activity. A wide variety of physical health problems, including illnesses that increase the need to urinate or defecate to cognitive dysfunction - "senility", "dementia" - can lead to excessive nighttime activity.
There is also a range of behavior problems that might produce nocturnal activity. Fear, anxiety, response to outdoor stimuli, a schedule change (for example, feeding, owner's work schedule, owner's bedtime routine), and unruly behavior are among the possibilities.
Unruly behavior is behavior that is boisterous, disorderly, disruptive, and lacking in restraint. Examples include barking and repeatedly asking to go outdoors. Two common reasons for unruly behavior are "excess energy" and attention-seeking behavior.
Diagnosis of the cause of excessive nighttime activity begins with a complete physical health screen, including a review of the pet's medical history, physical exam, and often diagnostic tests.
If physical health problems are ruled out, the various behavior possibilities are considered. Anxiety, schedule changes, and outdoor stimuli are among the more common issues that should be considered before settling on a diagnosis of unruly behavior.
Once it seems most likely that unruly behavior is the cause of the nighttime activity, then the reasons for this unruly behavior can be considered. If the pet is a young dog that is home alone all day then there may simply be "energy to burn". Other dogs may have learned that becoming active at night is a good way of getting attention from their human companions.
When unruly behavior is the reason for excessive nighttime acivity, management should be tailored for the individual pets situation. Some considerations that apply to most dogs include:
INCREASE DAYTIME AND EVENING INTERACTION Owners should spend as much time as possible with the dog during normal waking hours, engaging their pet in activities appropriate for it. Sedate walks around the yard might be what an older pet needs; young dogs might need vigorous play like chasing a ball or frisbee; working dogs might benefit from structured activities like training sessions and agility classes.
ALTER THE FEEDING SCHEDULE Usually this means eliminating an evening meal, but in some situations instituting an evening meal or bedtime snack can be tried.
ENSURE A COMFORTABLE AND SECURE SLEEPING AREA AND TRAIN THE DOG TO USE IT This is more than just a soft bed. Ideally, dogs should not be allowed to sleep in the same bed with their owners. (It is very important to some owners to have their dog in bed with them, and it is a part of their relationship with their pet that they will not give up. These owners should realize that allowing this sleeping arrangement is powerful reinforcement of their dogs attention-seeking behavior. This reinforcement will create a number of problems, including making it very difficult to manage excessive nighttime acitivity.)
The dog's sleeping area should be a location that is free of the disruptions of sights, sounds and smells of outdoor stimuli and also other household pets and in-house activity.
Once an appropriate sleeping area is established the dog should not be relied upon to naturally use it. Instead, the pet should be trained to use it with positive reinforcement. Choose a cue word - "bed", "place", "settle" - and bring the dog to the bed to lie down and receive a small food treat. Progress until the dog responds to the command and does not have to be brought to the bed.
AVOID REINFORCING THE NIGHTTIME ACTIVITY It is very difficult for owners to avoid indavertantly reinforcing their pet's nighttime plea for attention; this is because dogs will generally take any form of contact with their owner as positive reinforcement - eye contact, voice contact, physical contact, a trip out to the yard are all interpreted as excellent rewards, the equivalent of getting a wonderful food treat for begging at the table.
Ignoring the nighttime behavior might eventually serve to extinguish it; if the dog gets no reinforcement at all it is likely to eventually stop the behavior. Problems with this approach include temporary escalation of the unruly nighttime activity as the dog initially tries harder to gain the owner's attention, before realizing that a reward is not forthcoming, and quick relapse of the behavior after a period of successful control, when the owner, in a moment of sleepiness or agitation, responds in some way to their pet.
Minimizing the response to the dog's nocturnal behavior is probably the best approach to avoid reinforcing it. Keep eye contact to a minimum and do not touch the dog. No treats. If the dog is asking to go out, provide only a quick trip with just enough time to eliminate, or to establish that the dog does not need eliminate. In a neutral voice, use the one-word command for the dog to return to its sleeping area.
Yarmouth Veterinary Center
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