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Friday, June 20, 2014

Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs (Blog Request)

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. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Excessive Barking in the House (Blog Request)

One of the questions I hear most is whether my deaf and deaf/blind dogs bark.  While I would love to be able to say no, the truth is, that yes, they do bark.  As do my dogs that can see and hear.  It’s what dogs do – they bark.  If you are going to live with a dog, I think you need to accept the fact that they bark.  However, sometimes that barking can be excessive and seem to be for what humans believe is no good reason.  Our dogs, of course, always believe they have a good reason for barking.  How do we strike that compromise that allows our dogs to be dogs, yet protects our sanity as humans?
I think more often than not our dogs are confused when it comes to barking.  They don’t know whether we want them to bark or not.  Sometimes we may acknowledge their barking positively to announce visitors or even unwanted people on our property.  Sometimes we may laugh at their barking if they bark at something they think is scary but we think is cute.  Sometimes we may haphazardly mumble to them to knock it off or be quiet while we are otherwise engaged in some activity.  And still other times, we may become downright scary in our attempts to get our dogs to be quiet.  That doesn’t show the dog much consistency, and it doesn’t help to make clear to him what we do want him to do.
Some of us have the problem that our dogs bark at every little movement outside the window.  But if we leave our dog home alone all day with nothing to do but look out the window, can we blame him?  He sees something new and exciting outside the window to give him something to do, and he wants to join in!  If your dog has a consistent habit of barking, such as barking at things moving outside the window, it may be easy enough to prevent your dog from having access to that situation.  You can block your dog’s access to the window or put him in another room while you’re away.  You can buy window films that will allow light to shine in, but will block your dog from seeing out.  There are options only limited by your creativity.
Some dogs like to bark because it gets their person’s attention.  Sometimes we are aware of this behavior, such as when your dog comes and sits by the cabinet and barks for you to give him a treat, or if he sits and stares at you and barks until you pet him or toss his toy.  But other times it is hard to tell that what your dog wants is actually your attention.  He may bark and you may tell him to be quiet and if he barks again, you may get up and go to him to try to make him be quiet.  The problem is that if your dog only gets attention when he is barking, he may want your attention enough to get in trouble to get it. 
Instead, try paying more attention to your dog any time he is being quiet.  A gentle scratch behind the ears or a belly rub, a tasty treat dropped quietly by his side while he chews a bone … these things will go a long way toward minimizing excessive barking.  Behavior that is reinforced (rewarded with something the dog likes) will tend to happen more often!  So, paying attention to a quiet dog will tend to give you a quieter dog.  Paying attention to a barking dog will tend to give you a dog that barks more.
Decide in your mind what type of barking you will allow.  It’s not fair to a dog to expect no barking.  Imagine if someone forbid you to speak or make noises – ever!  Yikes!  So, when will you allow or even appreciate barking?  And in what situations would you like to diminish the barking?  You have to decide before you can teach your dog the difference.
I like to teach my dogs a quiet cue by rewarding them for being quiet.  Even my deaf dogs learn a quiet cue.  The end result is that when they are barking, I can give them the quiet cue and they know it is time to be quiet now.  But in the beginning, they need to learn what quiet means.  How do you explain to a dog what quiet is?  When a dog is barking, you can yell quiet all you want, but if the dog doesn’t already know what quiet means, he is unlikely to figure it out in that moment.  He is just as likely to think you are yelling, “The pizza guy is here!” 
I teach the quiet cue by giving the cue when my dogs are already quiet and then rewarding them immediately.   Any time I am reinforcing my dogs for being quiet, I cue them “quiet” and then praise them and reward them with things they like.  They begin to learn that when I say quiet they will get a reward, and they begin to have an inkling that this only happens when there is no sound coming out of their mouths.
The next step is to get their attention on me when they are barking.  I want the dog to look at me and be paying attention.  Sometimes this requires a touch to distract the dog long enough that he turns to see what I want.  I immediately give the quiet cue and reward immediately.  The reward has to come fast in the beginning before another bark can be said.  I keep containers of treats around my house in various areas to reward good behaviors quickly. 
There are other things that can help communicate to your dog that things are not as exciting as he thinks they are.  If you immediately jump up and run to the door whenever someone arrives, you are showing your dog how to behave – to jump up and excitedly rush to the door.  Dogs bark when they are excited!  Instead, put a sign outside your door asking guests to be patient as you may take a while to get to the door.  Take your time getting to the door.  Move and speak calmly.
When your dog barks, try to redirect him to do something else.  Even if you haven’t taught the quiet cue yet, you can run the other way (from what he’s barking at) and get him to chase you for a fun game, toss a toy for him to chase, have him go to the dog bed (if he already knows how to do that), etc.  Make sure you are breathing deeply and calmly.  If you are tense and holding your breath (which we often do when we are concentrating or hurrying), your dog will also be tense – and, you guessed it – tense dogs bark!
Lastly, but not any less important, be sure you reward your dog for being quiet when you want him to be.  Even if he just pauses for a moment before barking when he sees that cat outside or hears a noise, be ready to praise him and really reinforce his behavior with something he thinks is great!   Remember, if you pay attention to a quiet dog, you will get a quieter dog!