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Article: Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

The following  article is from a presentation Dr. Moon-Fanelli gave at the Tufts Expo and she has kindly given us permission to use it here. Please do not reprint in any form without asking Dr. Moon-Fanelli first.


Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB
Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine

Compulsive behavior occurs in most species, including dogs and humans. Obsessive-compulsive disorder has been recognized in people for some time, but the recognition of its occurrence in companion animals is relatively recent.

Compulsive behaviors in dogs are sequences of behavior that are repetitive, consistent in form and orientation, and do not appear to serve an obvious purpose. They are usually 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 its owner. These disorders are usually related to normal innate (“hard-wired”) behaviors like grooming, predatory behavior, eating or locomotion. Compulsive “grooming” disorders include repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs, which may cause lick granulomas (acral lick dermatitis), or 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 are thought to be related to “predatory behavior gone awry”. Repetitive circling, fence running, digging and pacing are also common manifestations of compulsive behavior. The form the compulsive behavior takes appears to depend on the species and perhaps the breed, and to some extent on the animal’s experiences and other influences. Compulsive behaviors become a problem when they prevent the animal from performing more appropriate behavior, or result in self-mutilation.

Compulsive behavior is often a manifestation of anxiety or stress the dog cannot control. Such emotional conflict can arise from environmentally induced anxiety as well as inconsistent interaction between the owner and the dog. When a dog is repeatedly placed in a state of conflict or anxiety, the threshold for the performance of the repetitive behavior decreases so that it may be manifested during exposure to any level of stress or arousal. Eventually the dog loses control over initiating or terminating the behavior. At this stage the behavior is also seen in non-stressful situations. Conditions known to trigger anxiety in susceptible dogs include 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, owner departures and returns, new environment (change in residence or boarding at kennel), changes in the dog’s environment (introduction or departure of people or pets), sound sensitivity (storms, vacuums, yard machinery, telephones, microwave bells), and lack of mental and physical stimulation appropriate for the breed and age of the dog.

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. Compulsive behaviors often develop in response to a specific situation, but then may become generalized to any situation in which the animal experiences a conscious or subconscious conflict. 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 aroused.

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-stimulated. However, it may be more appropriate to think of compulsive behavior as a clinical manifestation of an environmentally triggered disorder of the nervous system. It is thought that brain chemistry may be altered in affected animals.

Treatment of Compulsive Behavior

1. IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT – 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 if identified, it may be difficult or impossible to remove it. In the latter case, desensitizing the dog to the stressful situation may be beneficial.

2. NO DISCIPLINE – Once compulsive behavior is engrained, 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 (they may go to a remote location in the house) 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 transferred, not eliminated. Therefore, discipline should be avoided when treating dogs that are suffering from compulsive disorder.

3. OBEDIENCE TRAINING – Formal obedience training, at home, is an invaluable aid to 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 will also use obedience commands for the counterconditioning techniques that are recommended later in treatment. If the owner is inexperienced at dog training, the assistance of a trainer well versed in positive training techniques is recommended.

4. ATTENTION WITHDRAWAL – It is particularly important to ignore the dog, unless it is in danger of injuring itself, when it is engaged in compulsive behavior, since any attention given at this time may reinforce the unwanted behavior. The dog may consider any form of attention, even punishment, as a reward. Dogs are conditioned to respond to many cues that the owner may inadvertently be giving, and only by ignoring the dog can owners eliminate the possibility of giving such cues. This step is essential in the initial stage of treatment, but may be relaxed, once the obedience training has had some effect. Ignoring the dog, in conjunction with obedience training, may help reduce the incidence of compulsive behavior, if an element of attention- seeking behavior is involved.

What should owners do if they cannot distract their dog from the behavior? As soon as the dog begins to show compulsive behavior, owners should make a novel sound (blow a whistle or duck call, shake a can of pennies) and leave the room. Hopefully the sound will distract the dog, it will stop the unwanted behavior and follow the owner from the room. Ideally the dog should learn to associate the performance of a particular behavior with the sound and the owner’s subsequent departure. 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 when they begin this portion of the program, then it should decrease. It is very important that owners are consistent and do not reward their dog’s compulsion with attention or the dog will become more persistent.

5. EXERCISE – 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. As mentioned above, it is aerobic (running) exercise that is really indicated, not just a twice-daily saunter around the block. Owners will 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.

6. ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT – As a form of occupational therapy, give the dog distracting toys to keep it busy during times it is prone to engaging in compulsive behavior. Dogs who are motivated by food often like hollow bones or Kong toys filled with peanut butter or cream cheese. The food may 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 “Buster Cube” (a hard plastic cube that can be filled with dry kibble) is such a device. It must be rolled a few times for food to be released. Boomer Balls are also available as food puzzles. You can order one by calling 1-888-858-9529 (toll free). Ask for a ball with holes drilled to release kibble. 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 puzzles.

It is very important to remember that dogs are pack animals and as such are inherently social. Like people, dogs suffer emotionally, and sometimes physically, when they do not receive sufficient and appropriate social interaction. The optimum treatment strategy is to spend as much quality time with the dog as it needs, though the hustle and bustle of modern life does not always permit this luxury. Owners should consider engaging the services a professional dog walker or a neighbor to visit the dog when owners are away for long hours. Also, doggie day-care can provide an otherwise lonely dog with 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 be aggravated by an inappropriate lifestyle that is unstimulating. 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, make sure the owner incorporates breed-specific needs, such as herding-type activities for herding breeds, lure coursing for terriers and sight hounds, and retrieving games for sporting dogs.

7. STRUCTURE – 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.

8. DIET – The definitive work on what constitutes an appropriate diet has yet to be published, but we are currently researching this aspect of treatment for compulsive behavior. Theoretically, low protein diets should offer advantages over higher protein equivalents in terms of mood stabilization and the minimization of anxiety because low protein diets should promote the endogenous formation of serotonin. If appropriate for the dog’s age and activity level, feeding an all natural (no artificial preservatives) low protein diet (16-22% protein) for a trial period of 2-4 weeks is recommended to see if there is any improvement in the dog’s condition.

9. COUNTERCONDITION YOUR DOG – Counterconditioning interrupts unwanted behavior by training the dog to respond to a command which 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 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 it 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 owners 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 on a periodic basis to ensure its effectiveness when the owner needs it.

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. Train the dog to lie on the mat when it is relaxed and not likely to engage in compulsive behavior. Initially, reward the dog every 10 seconds it lies still, then every 20, then 30, and so on. Later you will want to institute intermittent rewards. If the dog leaves the mat, give a “no reward” mark such as “AH! AH!” for the misbehavior then escort the dog back to the mat. The dog will soon learn that if the “stay” command is broken, it is going to be returned to the mat without a reward. If the dog holds the stay on its own, it has a fair chance of being rewarded with a treat. Gradually train the dog to relax and lie on the mat when the owner is out of the room. Now the owners are ready to intervene before the dog engages in compulsive activity by commanding it to lie on the training mat, which should be located in a safe and quiet area.

10. DRUG TREATMENT – 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, use of drugs, usually is indicated. Although no drugs are FDA approved for the treatment of compulsive behavior in dogs, some success has been achieved using 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.

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. To be effective, all phases of the program must be followed simultaneously and consistently.