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What do you do if your dog simply won’t sit still or concentrate on tasks?

New research shows that owners of hyperactive or inattentive dogs can learn a lot from understanding ADHD in humans.

Not Just Disobedient: How Understanding ADHD Can Help Dog Owners

Once upon a time, children who struggled to sit still and concentrate were punished and even treated as less intelligent than their peers. Thankfully, society is evolving past those damaging days, as we come to understand more about ADHD. These days, we know that this very common condition, which affects up to 4% of adult Americans, has nothing to do with intelligence or goodness. We understand that it’s highly heritable but also affected by environmental factors, and can be managed through behavioral changes as well as medication.

As it turns out, all those things are also true of dogs. Studies show that 12–15% of dogs exhibit hyperactivity and impulsivity, and 20% exhibit inattention — and that those qualities are highly heritable but also influenced by environmental factors, just like they are in humans. Now, a study from researchers at the University of Helsinki has identified some of the most common environmental factors influencing ADHD-like behaviors in dogs — making it easier for dog owners to create the conditions for their dogs to flourish.

ADHD in Dogs: What Are the Risk Factors?

So what increases a dog’s likelihood of displaying ADHD-like behaviors? The study found that age and sex played a role, with young, male dogs the most likely to display hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention — mirroring the demographic breakdown of ADHD prevalence in humans.

Your dog’s breed is also a crucial factor. Certain breeds of working dog, for instance, have been bred to be highly active — which can leave them liable to hyperactivity and impulsivity, particularly if their lifestyles aren’t active enough. The study found that this was true of German Shepherd Dogs and Border Collies, as well as several breeds of terrier, including Russell Terriers and Cairn Terriers. On the other hand, certain dogs that are now bred primarily as companions, such as Chihuahuas and Rough Collies, display less hyperactivity because their breeding has favored calm dispositions — but along with that breeding pattern, inattention has sometimes been enhanced.

Curiously, the study also found that if an owner had previously owned a dog (or several dogs), their dog was more likely to display ADHD-like behaviors. More research is needed to understand why this might be, but the researchers speculate that more experienced dog owners might select more challenging or active breeds of dog.

Australian Shepherd running and playing outdoors.

ADHD in Dogs: The Risk Factors You Can Control

But what about the environmental factors you can actually influence? How can you, as a dog owner, help to make sure your dog feels — and behaves — as calm, focused, and content as possible?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent study found that activity and company were extremely powerful factors in mitigating dogs’ hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Dogs who spent more time alone and who participated in fewer activities were more likely to display ADHD-like behaviors, and fearful dogs (who are often not as well socialized) were more likely to be hyperactive and/or impulsive, too.

Caring for a Hyperactive Dog: What Can You Do?

If your dog is showing signs of hyperactivity, the first thing to do is to take them to veterinarian to see if they’re suffering from the relatively rare behavioral disorder hyperkinesis. “Hyperkinetic dogs have a difficult time settling and they appear to be aroused and distracted, oftentimes even in environments that are calm,” notes Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Mary Burch. Though this disorder is rare, if your dog is suffering from it, there are medications that can help.

Whether hyperkinesis is the problem or not, it’s essential to make sure that your dog is getting enough activity. Dr. Burch notes that often, dogs’ apparent behavioral problems are completely resolved with lifestyle changes to incorporate more attention and exercise.

So how can you tell if your dog isn’t getting enough exercise? “Some dogs will appear restless and may be ‘hyper’ to release some energy,” Dr. Burch observes — but that’s not the only sign. “Not enough exercise can result in dogs who are depressed or agitated. A dog that lacks exercise, if on a regular diet can gain weight, and lose muscle tone, strength, and cardiovascular ability (e.g., gets out of breath easily).”

Miniature Poodle Climbing Over an A-Frame at Dog Agility Trial

If any of this sounds familiar, fear not: there’s plenty you can do to give your dog the activity they need. Dog sports are a great way to make sure that your dog is stimulated mentally and physically — and owners of the working-dog breeds most likely to display ADHD-like behaviors can select dog sports that stimulate their breed-specific capacities, such as Herding or Earthdog. But there’s no need to restrict your activities to breed-specific sports. “Active dogs can benefit from training and events of all types,” notes Dr. Burch. “Agility, dock diving, disc dog, and AKC FIT DOG walks will provide active dogs with the exercise they need to be calm.”

What if your lifestyle makes it difficult to provide sufficient activity and attention? Don’t underestimate the power of a brisk exercise session before work, which can significantly calm your pup before a day of solitude. Dr. Mary Burch also advises having a neighbor or dog walker drop in during the day or looking into doggy daycare options.

As we learn how to adapt modern lifestyles to accommodate and nurture neurodiversity among humans, there’s also an opportunity to attune to our dogs’ varying mental and emotional makeup. With attention and care, dog owners can help pups of all kinds lead the happiest, most stable lives possible.

Related article: OCD in Dogs: Can it Happen?
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