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Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Diagnosis In-depth

Diagnosing compulsive behaviors can be challenging. A complete physical examination by a veterinarian is important to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to the behavior.

A consultation with a behaviorist is recommended to confirm the diagnosis. A detailed behavior history will be requested as well as specific information related to the behavior problem. It is important to be able to provide a detailed description of the behavior, frequency of occurrence and situations in which the behavior is performed. Videotapes may help to confirm the diagnosis if the behavior is not observed during the consultation period.

Therapy In-depth

Reducing stress by identifying methods of decreasing the sources of arousal and conflict are the first aspects of treatment that should be explored. It is important to identify when, and in what situation, the behavior occurred for the first time, and under what circumstances it is currently performed. It is not always possible to identify the conflict, and even if a source of conflict is identified, it may be difficult or impossible to remove it. In the latter instance, desensitizing the dog to the stressful situation may be beneficial.

  • Once compulsive behavior is ingrained, it becomes an activity over which the dog no longer has any form of self-control. At this stage, discipline could be construed as a form of cruelty. Discipline is very complex, and if not used properly, may increase the dog's anxiety by increasing the unpredictability of the owner's interactions with the dog. Dogs that are punished for compulsive behavior may learn to engage in the behavior only in the owner's absence or they may engage in a different form of compulsive behavior that is more "acceptable" to the owner. For example, a tail chaser may begin to pace in large circles or may engage in repetitive behavior with toys. The point is, the underlying anxiety has not been addressed and the compulsion has merely been transformed, not eliminated. Therefore, discipline should be avoided when treating dogs that are suffering from compulsive disorder.

  • It is particularly important to ignore the dog, unless he is in danger of injuring himself when he is engaged in compulsive behavior, since any attention given at this time may reinforce the unwanted behavior. The dog may consider admonitions as a reward. Dogs are conditioned to respond to many cues that the owner may inadvertently provide and only by ignoring their dog can owners eliminate any possibility of emitting such signals. This step is essential in the initial stages of treatment but may be relaxed once training has had some effect.
  • To reinforce attention withdrawal, owners can make a novel sound (blow a whistle or duck call, shake a can of pennies) and leave the room as soon as the dog begins to show the compulsive behavior. The idea is that the sound will focus and distract the dog, which will then stop the unwanted behavior and concentrate on the owner's departure. Ideally, the dog should learn to associate the performance of a particular behavior with the sound and the owner's withdrawal. The owner's departure functions as a form of punishment for the dog and will help decrease the frequency of the behavior. If there is an attention-seeking component to the dog's compulsive behavior, owners may notice an increase in the frequency and/or intensity of the behavior before it decreases. It is very important that owners are consistent and do not reward their dog's compulsion with attention at any time or the dog will become more persistent.

  • Counterconditioning interrupts unwanted behavior by training the dog to respond to a command with a behavior that is incompatible with continuing performance of the compulsive behavior. This technique is most effective when owners can identify and predict the situations that trigger the dog's compulsive behavior. Counterconditioning is most successfully implemented later in the treatment program after the dog's anxiety level is reduced (via management changes and pharmacological treatment) and response to obedience commands is well established.
  • The first step to counterconditioning is to teach the dog to relax on command by responding to verbal and visual cues from the owner. Under non-stressful conditions, owners should teach the dog to sit and watch the owner in order to receive praise or a food treat. Say "sit" and as the owner moves her finger to her face as a visual cue say "watch me." If the dog responds by paying attention to the owner in a relaxed and focused manner, reward the dog with a small food treat or praise him lavishly. Perform this relaxation exercise daily for the first 5 days. Each day, increase the amount of time that the dog must pay attention to the owner in a relaxed pose before he receives a reward. By the end of the fifth day, the dog should be able to sit while focused on the owner for 25-30 seconds no matter what the distraction.

  • At this stage, when owner's sense that their dog is about to engage in compulsive behavior, they can use this counterconditioning technique to interrupt the behavior before it is initiated. It is important to practice this exercise periodically to ensure its effectiveness. Alternatively, once the dog can perform a long "down-stay", train the dog to lie on a special dog bed or mat that is used specifically for training. Now the owners are ready to intervene before the dog engages in compulsive activity by commanding him to lie on the training mat, which should be located in a safe and quiet area.

  • Engaging the dog in play or providing him with a suitable toy to keep him occupied can also be helpful, if he is capable of being distracted.

  • If the compulsive behavior has been going on for some time, removing the cause of the conflict in conjunction with the other steps in the behavior treatment program may not be sufficient to curtail the dog's compulsive tendencies. In these cases, medication may be required. Although no drugs are FDA-approved for the treatment of compulsive behavior in dogs, some success has been achieved with drugs prescribed for the treatment of similar disorders in humans. Commonly prescribed medications include clomipramine or fluoxetine. Use of medication, without the behavioral modification techniques outlined above, generally is ineffective. Some dogs respond well to the behavior modification and changes in home management, and do not need to remain on medication long-term. However, other dogs relapse when medication is withdrawn and must remain on medication for the long haul.

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