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Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Just like in people, regular, brisk, daily exercise is an effective means to reduce a dog's anxiety. Twenty to thirty minutes of sustained, aerobic exercise once or preferably twice per day is recommended. A brisk walk or games of fetch are good forms of exercise. Owners need to promote and supervise their dog's exercise program. Simply turning the dog out in the backyard is usually insufficient, as most dogs do not tire themselves out this way.

Obedience training, at home, is an invaluable aid in the treatment of compulsive dogs. Two 5-minute sessions of obedience exercises are usually sufficient. Be sure to use treats and praise for motivation. Obedience training will make the interaction between the owner and the dog more consistent and make the dog's environment more predictable, which will help decrease the dog's anxiety. Regular obedience training will also stimulate the dog mentally, much like having a job. Owners can also use obedience commands for the counterconditioning techniques that are used in treatment. If the owner is inexperienced in dog training, the assistance of a trainer well versed in positive training techniques is recommended.

As a form of occupational therapy, give the dog distracting toys to keep him busy during times he is prone to engaging in compulsive behavior. Dogs that are motivated by food often like hollow bones or Kong® toys filled with peanut butter or cream cheese. The food will take longer to extract if the food filled toy is frozen. If the dog enjoys chasing objects, a large Boomer Ball® can be made more interesting with rabbit scent (available to train hunting dogs) and the dog can push it around the yard or house. There are also a variety of "food puzzle" toys available in pet stores and through pet catalogues. A Busta Cube® (a hard plastic cube that can be filled with dry kibble) is such a device. It must be rolled around for the food to be released. Boomer Balls® are also available as food puzzles. Owners may need to start by filling the toy with the dog's favorite food treats to generate enthusiasm. To keep the dog mentally stimulated, owners can provide daily meals in one of these food puzzle devices.

It is important to remember that dogs are pack animals and, as such, are inherently social. Like people, dogs suffer emotionally when they do not receive sufficient and appropriate social interaction. The optimum treatment strategy in this department is to spend as much quality time with a dog as he needs, though the hustle and bustle of modern life does not always permit this luxury. Owners who are short of time should consider engaging the services a professional dog walker or a neighbor to visit their dog when they are to be away for long hours. Doggie day-care can provide an otherwise lonely dog with some company and entertainment.

The take home message is that dogs are living creatures and need something to occupy their time, just as we do. Many of the modern-day canine psychoses seem to stem from or are aggravated by an inappropriate, unstimulating lifestyle. It benefits dogs to be gainfully employed in something - to have a job to do. In the process of designing a job for the dog, owners should be sure to incorporate breed-specific needs, such as herding-type activities for herding breeds, lure coursing for terriers and sight hounds, and retrieving games for sporting dogs.

Dogs feel more secure, and consequently less anxious, when they have a predictable routine. Owners should try to maintain a consistent daily schedule for feeding, exercise, training, and play so the dog can anticipate the activities and attention.

Although it is usually not possible to completely eliminate compulsive behavior, the treatment outlined above is effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of the compulsive activity. Treatment is considered successful when the behavior is infrequent and the dog only engages in compulsive behavior in response to a particularly stressful situation. It should be easy to interrupt the dog when he does engage in the behavior and he should not immediately return to the behavior. To be effective, all phases of the program must be followed simultaneously and consistently.

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