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.
- Compulsive behaviors in dogs are sequences of behavior that are repetitive and relatively invariant in expression and orientation. They do not appear to serve an obvious purpose and some are potentially injurious to the animal.
- Owners of severely affected dogs report that their companion appears to be anxious or distraught. Affected dogs often engage in their compulsions rather than play or eat and are often unresponsive to their owner’s affection or directions. Affected dogs lose aspects of good companionship.
- Compulsive disorders appear to be related to normal innate (genetic or “hard-wired”) behaviors like grooming, predatory behavior, eating, locomotion, or sexual behavior. Compulsive “grooming” disorders include repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs, which may cause lesions referred to as lick granulomata (a.k.a. acral lick dermatitis), and compulsive chewing of the feet or toe nails. Acral lick dermatitis (ALD) is most common in large (> 50lbs), active breeds that have been selected to work closely with people and form strong attachments. Not surprisingly, dogs with ALD may also have other anxiety-related behavior conditions such as separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and fear-based territorial aggression.
- Flank biting or sucking is thought to be related to “nursing behavior”; and tail chasing/spinning, shadow chasing and some forms of fly snapping may be related to predatory behavior. Tail chasing is most commonly observed in terriers and herding breeds, although any breed can be affected. Repetitive circling, fence running, digging and pacing are also common manifestations of compulsive behavior.
- Sometimes a dog develops a compulsive disorder without exposure to an identifiable stressor. Such dogs are usually young (less than 1-1/2 years of age) and may have a family history of compulsive behavior.
That said, expression of compulsive behavior is often a manifestation of environmental anxiety or stress. Compulsive behaviors often develop in response to a specific situation but may become generalized to any situation in which the animal experiences conflict. Emotional conflict can arise from environmentally induced anxiety as well as inconsistent interactions between the owner and the dog. When a dog is repeatedly placed in a situation of conflict, the threshold for the performance of the repetitive behavior decreases so that the behavior may be eventually manifested when there is any increase in activity arousal. Eventually a dog with compulsive behavior loses control over the behavior. At this stage, the behavior will occur in non-stressful situations.
Conditions known to trigger anxiety in susceptible dogs include relatively benign experiences that would not have a negative impact on most dogs. Potential triggers for a susceptible dog include:
- Inadequate social interaction with owners or conspecifics
- Owners departures and returns
- Environmental change (e.g. boarding at kennel)
- Changes in social arrangement (introduction or departure of people or pets)
- Particular sounds (storms, vacuums, yard machinery, telephones, microwave bells, running water)
- Lack of mental and physical stimulation appropriate for the dog’s breed and age
Some compulsive behavior may inadvertently become conditioned by reinforcement from well meaning owners. There is also some evidence that the development of compulsive behavior is facilitated by an inherited predisposition.
Some behaviorists believe that compulsive behaviors are the animal’s way of coping with a stressful situation as the behavior is commonly seen when the animal is over- or under-stimulated. However, it has been suggested that once the behavior becomes “fixed”, the pathways in the brain which control the behavior are sensitized, so that the animal follows the compulsive sequence of behaviors whenever it becomes anxious or even simply aroused. It may be more appropriate to think of compulsive behavior as a clinical manifestation of an environmentally-triggered nervous system disorder. It has been suggested that brain chemistry may be altered in affected animals.
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.
- 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.
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.