Does your Chihuahua go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye?

You know the drill – one moment, your Chihuahua seems to be lounging around, then the doorbell rings, and they shoot up like a rocket, barking and jumping, eager to be part of the action.

Or you’re out on a walk, everything is going smoothly, and suddenly they spot another dog. Instantly, they’re barking, lunging, and spinning at the end of the leash.

Or a car door slams, and your Chihuahuas are at the window, barking as if aliens have just landed on your lawn.

Reticular Activating System

Just like with humans, dogs’ reactions to stimuli are controlled by their Reticular Activating System (RAS), a cluster of neurons located at the base of the brainstem. This system governs their behavior and dictates how they react to different situations. For a minor event, you’d expect a mild response, and for a major event, an increase in arousal leading to a more substantial reaction.

The challenge for Chihuahuas and other dogs prone to extreme behavior swings is that their RAS is hypersensitive or tightly wound. It can’t find that middle ground, setting an appropriate level of arousal for a given situation.

Calm or Crazy

It’s like a light switch, either all calm or all crazy.

This hypersensitive RAS can pose behavioural challenges for our Chihuahuas. Other dogs may find it challenging to interact with them, as they tend to be overly excited and may even defend themselves against such high energy. Walking them can be a handful, as they bounce around, unable to follow directions or make sound judgments about their surroundings. Managing them at home can be equally challenging, with constant jumping at every noise, excessive reactions to visitors, and difficulty settling down. Separation anxiety might also become a problem, as their emotions run high when you leave them alone. They may also be more prone to biting or overreacting to movement.

Throughout the day, this can lead to numerous instances where your Chihuahua switches from relative calmness to inappropriate overarousal, resembling a light switch going from off to on.

What we aim for is a smoother transition, maintaining interest without going crazy. Of course, in the face of a genuinely scary event, we want our Chihuahuas to react quickly to protect themselves. However, what we don’t want is for them to have a hyper-vigilant reaction to everyday occurrences around them.

Dimmer Switch

To help our Chihuahuas overcome this light switch effect, we need to teach them how to use a dimmer switch—a smoother transition between emotions and more self-control. We want them to have a range of settings between 0 and 100.

Play figure 8s

One simple exercise for achieving this is practicing figure eights or walking in different shapes while varying your pace.

When walking your Chihuahua in a figure-eight pattern, do so calmly and without using food as a lure if possible. Think of it as a form of meditation, keeping your chatter and interactions to a minimum. This may take a few sessions to achieve.

Once you have a calm figure-eight walk down, gradually change your pace. Faster movement increases their arousal level, while slower movement brings it down. Gentle pace changes guide your Chihuahua through a range of arousal levels, helping them develop that essential dimmer switch. This stretches out the RAS, offering your Chihuahua a broader range of emotional responses.

Like all dog training, this is just one piece of the puzzle, but building a dimmer switch is a crucial step in addressing hypervigilant barking and erratic behavior, providing your Chihuahua with the tools to make better decisions on their own.