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Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

What Are Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs?

Compulsive behaviors are repetitive sequences of behavior that are fairly consistent in their presentation. They do not appear to serve any obvious purpose, although some argue that they function to reduce a dog’s stress level. Compulsive behaviors may be time consuming, may result in physical injury to the dog, may significantly impair the dog’s ability to function normally and may impair the dog’s relationship with his owner.

Compulsive behavior frequently appears to be triggered by anxiety or stress. Conditions known to cause anxiety in susceptible dogs include a change in the social or physical environment or long periods of solitary confinement.

Initially, a dog may only show the repetitive behavior when exposed to a situation that is stressful or increases its level of arousal. When a dog is repeatedly placed in a situation of conflict, the repetitive behavior exhibited may become ingrained. Once incorporated into the dog’s behavioral repertoire, compulsive behaviors will be performed even if the initiating stressors are removed. At this stage, the dog appears unable to control his own actions.

One of the first behaviors considered representative of a compulsive disorder in dogs was repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs, which may cause physical lesions called lick granulomas (acral lick dermatitis). Other compulsive behaviors in dogs include flank sucking, tail chasing, shadow chasing and fly snapping. Repetitive circling, fence running and pacing may also be manifestations of compulsive behavior.

Diagnosis of Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

A complete physical examination by a veterinarian and a consultation with a behavior specialist is recommended to confirm a diagnosis of compulsive behavior. The owner should be prepared to provide a detailed description of the behavior, the duration and frequency of bouts, and situations in which the behavior typically occurs.

Treatment of Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

If the behavior is triggered by conflict the dog is experiencing on a regular basis, try to eliminate the stressor or, if possible, attempt to desensitize the dog to the situation.

Whenever the dog is engaged in the compulsive behavior, he should be ignored. Both mild punishment and reassurance can reward the dog’s unwanted behavior by supplying the owner’s attention. Punishment has the potential to increase the dog’s anxiety and worsen the condition.

Training the dog to relax on command may help interrupt unwanted behavior later in the treatment program.

Although there are no medications approved to treat compulsive disorders in dogs, some success has been achieved with antidepressants prescribed for similar disorders in humans.

Home Care for Dogs with Compulsive Behaviors

Providing appropriate aerobic exercise, regular daily obedience training and stimulating toys can help reduce a dog’s inclination to perform a compulsive behavior. Providing a dog with a job that incorporates his breed-specific needs and making sure he receives adequate social stimulation are important.

For many dogs, arranging a predictable routine for feeding, exercise and social interaction can reduce their anxiety level.

Although it is not always possible to completely extinguish a compulsive behavior, the treatment outlined above is effective in reducing its intensity and frequency. For maximum effect, all components of the program need to be engaged in simultaneously and consistently.

Information In-depth Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

Compulsive behaviors occur in most species, including humans and dogs. Such behaviors have been recognized in humans for some time, but appreciation of their occurrence in companion animals is relatively recent. Many of the repetitive behavior conditions that are seen in dogs have numerous and compelling similarities to obsessive compulsive disorders that occur in people. In addition, affected dogs often respond to the same type of medications used to treat human obsessive compulsive disorder.

Diagnosis In-depth of Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

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 for Dogs with Compulsive Behaviors

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.

Treatment for Dogs with Compulsive Behaviors

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.