Treating obsessive behaviour in dogs

Dogs are playful by nature.  It’s common for them to occasionally chase their tails, whirl wildly, suck their flank or become territorial about their toys. However, for some dogs the behaviour becomes so obsessive that it causes them injury or exhaustion. Although obsessive behaviour is not usually life-threatening, it can have a great impact on the day-to-day life of both you and your dog.

Signs/ symptoms

While most dogs display odd behaviours from time to time, what distinguishes obsessive behaviour is that it's repetitive, constant and difficult for your dog to stop, often resulting in weight loss, exhaustion or injury. The most common obsessive behaviours include:

  • Spinning, pacing or fly snapping
  • Barking, licking or drinking excessively
  • Chasing shadows, lights or their own tail
  • Fixating on toys or games
  • Intense body language when engaged in the behaviour, such as a stiff body, glazed eyes, dilated pupils

Causes

There are a number of reasons a dog might develop obsessive behaviours. It is important to see your vet as soon as possible to ensure you receive appropriate medical treatment. (For more information on our Behavioural Consultations, click here.)

  • Anxiety

Dogs often try to relieve stress by performing normal behaviours such as chewing a toy. However, over time the behaviour can become so repetitive that the dog will need to chew the toy constantly, even in the absence of any stressors. This “ritualised behaviour” can take over the dog’s life, replacing normal sleep and feeding habits.

  • Medical causes

There are some neurological conditions that can cause obsessive behaviours. For example, severe tail chasing has been attributed to epilepsy and is sometimes described as a seizure-related symptom.

  • Breed and age

Some animals have a known genetic predisposition to compulsive behaviours. Doberman Pinschers, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers often have excessive licking problems, Bull Terriers repetitively spin more often than other breeds and German Shepherds seem vulnerable to tail-chasing compulsions. The age of your dog might also be a factor; sudden onset of tail chasing is common in older dogs and often signals a psychological or medical condition.

  • Prior injuries

If an animal receives an injury to the tail (such as being slammed in a door), he or she will often try to ease the discomfort by chasing or scratching the tail. As the behavior is comforting for the dog, it can quickly become a habitual response to all other threats, even after the tail has healed. This conditioning can lead to the behaviour becoming entrenched in your dog’s day-to-day life.

Diagnosis

As a rule of thumb, if the behavior is getting more frequent or persists longer than a week, see your vet. They will usually run a series of diagnostic tests to rule out underlying medical causes including cognitive dysfunction, neurological disorders, injury and allergy.

Treatment

For most dogs, obsessive behaviours develop as an outlet for anxiety, frustration or suppressed energy. Standard treatment often involves a combination of behaviour modification and drug therapy.

  • Drug Therapy

Sometimes, obsessive behaviours are the result of a chemical imbalance, such as decreased serotonin or increased dopamine levels. Your vet may prescribe anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. While it can take several weeks for medications to be effective, it can be a great intermediary step to bring obsessive  behaviour under control.  

  • Behavioural Modification Therapy

To effectively treat anxiety-based obsessive behaviour, you will need to help your dog to develop alternative coping mechanisms.

  1. Act early. Intercept your dog’s behaviour as soon as you notice it. Once the behaviour has escalated it may be difficult to effectively intervene.
  2. Distract. As soon as your dog starts to engage in a compulsive behaviour, distract him or her with food, play, praise or toys (or, if dog is toy-fixated, rewards-based play).
  3. Redirect attention. Keep your dog distracted by offering a food-filled puzzle toy, or playing a game that he or she is not fixated on.
  4. Command. Ask your dog to perform a trick that he or she cannot do at the same time as the obsessive behaviour. For example, if your dog starts to spin or chase his tail, command him or her to sit or lie down. If your dog is not already trained, consult your vet about instigating a rewards-based training program.
  5. Repeat steps 1,2,3. Whenever your dog exhibits obsessive behaviour, initiate the steps above. By integrating these steps into your dog’s daily life, he or she will soon become conditioned to respond with the newly trained behaviour rather than the obsessive one.
  6. Keep your dog stimulated. Physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating compulsive disorders. To keep your dog engaged and active, ensure he or she has daily exercise, lots of new and varied toys and regular interaction with other dogs.

What not to do

Obsessive behaviour is often caused by underlying anxiety, so it’s important not to punish or scold your dog when you see the behaviour. It’s also important not to give your dog attention as it may reinforce the behaviour. 

For more information on the Behavioural Consultations that we offer, click here.

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