I’ve been asked to write about compulsive behavior in dogs. This is a broad topic and one that I personally don’t have too much experience with, although I have had a few dogs through the years with behaviors that seem to fit the description of compulsive.
In searching various sites online, I’ve put together a definition that I think explains just what a compulsive behavior looks like. In most cases, it is a normal dog behavior that is exaggerated and performed repetitively for long periods of time and most likely out of the normal context. These behaviors can interfere with the dog’s normal every day activities. The dog has an unrelenting urge to do the behaviors over and over again. It is not something they can control without interruption.
Some common behaviors that may become compulsive include spinning, tail chasing, fixation and chasing of lights or shadows, pacing a specific path or pattern, circling, and chewing, licking or sucking on a particular body part, creating sores. Of course, there are others, but these are ones I hear about most often.
If your dog is showing signs of compulsive behavior, it is important to have a complete veterinary exam done to rule out any medical cause for the behavior. In extreme cases, the veterinarian may prescribe medication to help reduce ongoing compulsive behavior.
In my personal experience, periods of stress seem to prompt the compulsive behaviors to start. And once they start, they are difficult to stop. The dog’s level of stress is often a factor as to how intense and long-lasting the outbursts of behavior are.
In researching this topic, I found suggested that compulsive behaviors begin when the dog is stressed or frustrated and it discovers the behavior helps it to feel better and reduce the feelings of stress. This is reinforcing to the dog, so it continues the behavior to help it feel better. Over time, the dog is practicing this pattern and it becomes worse over time.
I can see how this can be true. I’ve had dogs that showed compulsive pacing behaviors and trotted out a fixed pattern in the house and/or yard repetitively, almost as if they were in a trance. These were dogs that had lived for years in small confinement and most likely paced their small cages as an outlet for boredom and frustration.
When these dogs were stressed even slightly, the pacing behaviors started and continued until I was able to interrupt them. It truly did look as if they were in a trance, not thinking at all about the behavior. They were just performing on auto pilot as a way to numb themselves from what was going on.
Everything I read pointed to stress as being a major cause and trigger for compulsive behaviors. Some sites mentioned dogs that were tied up or confined for long periods of time to small areas, and/or were left along for long periods of time, showed more instances of compulsive behavior than others.
So, what can be done to reduce compulsive behaviors in dogs? Begin by writing down the compulsive behaviors you observe and anything surrounding that situation that may be a trigger for the behavior to begin. As much as you can, remove or minimize the triggers that start the behavior. It may be possible to put your dog in a different room before specific events happen (guests coming, microwave beeping, etc).
Work with a trainer to begin to desensitize and counter condition some of the lower level triggers. The idea is to help your dog to develop a new emotional response to the trigger, so hopefully instead of feeling stress (which will trigger the compulsive behavior), your dog can begin to feel calm or happy about it.
When you see the compulsive behavior begin to happen, distract your dog and redirect his attention to something else. Try to engage him in a game or with a food puzzle or a chew toy. You must help him substitute something else to do. Don’t punish his behavior in any way. He is not being disobedient. He is stressed and he doesn’t know what else to do in that situation. You must help him.
Lowering stress levels overall will certainly help to reduce the behaviors. You can read previous blog posts here about ways to recognize and lower stress. Enrichment and exercise are also good stress relievers. Moderate exercise is good for both you and your dog. Heavy, frenzied exercise for long periods of time is likely to increase your dog’s stress levels instead of helping to lower them.
Enrichment is always a good idea to keep your dog’s brain engaged and thinking. Food puzzles, Kongs, chew toys, teaching tricks, giving him normal outlets for dog behavior (digging, chewing, and tearing), letting him explore new sights and smells, nose work games, etc. All of these can be helpful in giving your dog other things to do and think about.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. Here are three websites I found while doing my searches that seem to be the most informative about compulsive behaviors in dogs.