Hyper dogs: Early recognition through testing
Given the problems that being “hyper” causes for humans and dogs, focus on early recognition and intervention would seem logical. Early recognition is especially important once you understand that the most likely epigenetic effects plaguing stressed puppies or those with stressed moms (e.g., puppy mill dogs, dogs born into shelters or on the street, dogs separated from their mothers before 8 weeks) are neurodevelopmental ones that result in heightened reactivity. Unfortunately, we have failed to develop valid, repeatable and broadly applicable tests of attentiveness and focus. Such tests would not be hard to develop and would be the first step in truly assessing the morass and complaints that form the overactivity-hyperactivity-hyperreactivity spectrum.
Tests fall into two broad categories: functional assays that can be profoundly affected by culture, environment, and any training, learning and previous experience (both in terms of attending to cues and learning to ignore them) and biobehavioral or neurophysiological measures or potential biomarkers that are more independent of experience, culture and environment.
• The amount of time that a dog will spend searching for a ball is one test of focus used in working dogs. As a caveat, the dog in question must be extremely interested in balls and playing with them, and for the dogs for which this is a suitable test, the ball should be a preferred reward.
• The amount of time a dog requires to learn certain requests (e.g., sit, down) could be standardized for testing conditions, age and breed and provide some baseline data on how variable the breed is and how breeds vary.
• The amount of time a dog will sit and look at you for a treat that the dog knows you are holding can be one measure of attentiveness or focus in a dog that is highly motivated for food.
• The amount of time that a dog will sit and look at a person’s face searching for cues about what is expected could evaluate an extreme form of focus, were the conditions under which the test was done controlled (which would include such things as posture, tone) and were data on the dogs recorded and evaluated in a way meaningful to the dogs. Implicit in this is an understanding that human culture matters and dogs that are raised in apartments may not be the same as dogs that are raised on farms.
• Increasingly, responses to passing dogs or cues on computer screens have been used to assess variation in attentional focus in dogs in experimental studies concerning learning, but in terms of evaluating whether dogs on the overactivity-hyperactivity-hyperreactivity spectrum have some reliable deficits in attention or behaviors indicative of these is unknown.
• Neurobehavioral measures such as pupillary flickers or eye movements are underexplored in dogs but may hold great promise.