Compulsive behaviors in dogs

Pacing, tail chasing, sky gazing, flank sucking, fly snapping, and other odd behaviors are more than disruptive; they steal the life from affected dogs. These compulsive habits (stereotypies) are repetitive, constant, and serve no useful purpose. Specific events may trigger the activity but until these dogs are exhausted it’s almost impossible to get them to stop. Relationships disappear.

A few dog breeds are genetically prone to stereotypic behavior.

  • Some Labrador retrievers chew rocks
  • Miniature schnauzers can habitually check their rear ends (who knows what they’re looking for)
  • King Charles spaniels and Bernese Mountain dogs are at higher risk for snapping at imaginary flies.

Most cases result from a dog’s environment preventing him from carrying out a normal canine behavior.

  • Dogs can develop compulsive habits because they are confined in too small an area or if they aren’t given enough stimulation to keep them occupied.
  • It can occur following a change in a dog’s routine or when training results in anxiety because of inappropriate punishment.
  • People or pets moving into or out of a home or an owner’s illness can also set compulsive habits into motion.

Trying to make an obsessing dog stop spinning, circling, or staring can be maddening; they simply don’t respond.

  • If you punish a dog like this she will become even more anxious and her behavior problems will worsen.
  • A compulsive dog needs careful medical attention.
    • Diagnosis and treatment must begin with a thorough exam and lab profile to rule out physical causes, especially neurologic disorders.
    • Focal epilepsy and nerve pain are elusive problems that can mimic the signs of compulsive behavior.

There is no one-size-fits-all method of helping these pets.

  • Treatment must be custom tailored for the dog and his home.
    • Clomipramine or fluoxetine are medications that are important for many affected dogs but structured behavior modifications are essential in every case.
    • Compulsive dogs need a planned routine of interactions with their people and with other dogs.
  • The key is a predictable environment that is reliable and stimulating for the dog.
    • Consistent training methods and non-stressful interactions are fundamental.
    • Lots of reward-based work like obedience, fly ball, or agility can really make a difference.

Managing a dog like this is intense but failure is a bad option.

  • Untreated compulsive disorders can cause severe weight loss and debilitating self trauma.
  • These are potentially terminal behaviors.