Compulsive behaviors in dogs, also known as stereotypies, are repetitive, invariant behaviors that serve no obvious purpose or function for the dog. Examples of common compulsive behaviors seen in dogs include tail chasing, flank sucking, snapping at imaginary flies, licking objects or body parts excessively, and pacing or circling repetitively. While the exact causes of compulsive behaviors are not fully understood, they are thought to be related to stress, anxiety, boredom, and genetics. Left untreated, compulsive behaviors can significantly impact a dog's quality of life and lead to self-injury. Thankfully, several training and behavior modification techniques have proven effective in addressing compulsive behaviors in dogs.
Understanding Compulsive Behaviors
Compulsive behaviors in dogs fall under a class of disorders known as stereotypic animal behaviors. Stereotypies are defined as repetitive, unvarying behavior patterns with no obvious goal or function. While stereotypies occur in many animal species, they are most commonly seen in captive animals such as zoo animals, laboratory animals, and pets. Captivity is thought to be a major risk factor for stereotypic behavior development due to confinement stress, inadequate mental stimulation, and restricted movement.
Some common examples of stereotypic behaviors in dogs include:
- Tail chasing – repetitive spinning in circles to chase tail
- Flank sucking – obsessive sucking/licking of lower flanks
- Fly snapping – snapping repetitively at imaginary flies
- Excessive licking – licking objects, body parts, or air excessively
- Pacing/circling – repetitive pacing or circling in set patterns
While the exact cause of compulsive behaviors is not fully understood, it is likely multifactorial. Contributing factors can include:
- Genetics – inherited tendencies or breed predispositions
- Anxiety/stress – confined spaces, isolation, lack of predictability
- Boredom/lack of mental stimulation – inadequate exercise, activities
- Medical issues – allergies, skin problems, gastrointestinal issues
- Learned behavior – accidentally reinforced by owner attention
Compulsive behaviors are not normal dog behaviors and can significantly impact quality of life. They also put dogs at risk for self-injury if the behavior involves licking, chewing, or biting at the body. Addressing compulsive behaviors through training, enrichment, and medical treatment when needed is important for the dog's mental and physical health.
Using Training to Stop Compulsive Behaviors
The good news about compulsive behaviors in dogs is that many respond well to training and behavior modification techniques. While medication may be needed in some cases, training should be viewed as an essential part of any treatment plan. Training can help address the root causes of anxiety, stress, and boredom that often trigger compulsive behaviors in dogs. The following training approaches can be effective in reducing or eliminating unwanted compulsive behaviors.
Increase Exercise and Mental Enrichment
Lack of adequate physical and mental stimulation is a common contributor to compulsive behavior development. Dogs that do not get enough exercise and environmental enrichment are more likely to develop stereotypies out of boredom and frustration. Dramatically increasing daily exercise and playtime is often one of the first recommendations for dogs with compulsion disorders. Ideally, dogs should get 60+ minutes of activity daily, including walks, playtime, training games, and food puzzle toys. Mental enrichment through training, nosework, trick training, and toys keeps dogs engaged and prevents boredom.
Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety and stress are also major risk factors for compulsive disorders. Training should focus on creating a predictable routine for the dog, avoiding triggers that cause anxiety, and teaching relaxation skills. Triggers like loud noises, being alone, or confinement should be avoided when possible. Calming supplements, pheromone diffusers, or anxiolytic medications may be warranted for dogs with severe anxiety. Teaching dogs to settle on cue, engage in relaxing activities like licking or chewing, and providing safe spaces or dens can also minimize anxiety.
Interrupt and Redirect
Once the compulsive behavior starts, prompt interruption and redirection to another activity is key. Pet owners can interrupt repetitive behaviors with a loud noise, clap, or verbal cue like "enough". Immediately after interrupting, the dog should be positively redirected to a more appropriate behavior. For example, a tail-chasing dog could be interrupted, then redirected to a sit and rewarded with praise and a treat. With consistent interruption and redirection, the unwanted behavior can be placed on cue extinction.
Compulsive behaviors are often inadvertently reinforced by owners through attention or other rewards. Petting, scolding, or even just watching the dog while it engages in the problem behavior may reinforce it. It's critical to ensure owners and family members completely ignore the compulsive behavior. Reward and attention should only be given for absence of the behavior. For example, if a dog normally earns attention by obsessively barking, attention should only be given when the dog is quiet. This removes the reward payoff for the compulsive behavior.
Target Alternative Behaviors
Another training strategy is to teach and reinforce an alternative, incompatible behavior in place of the compulsion. For example, a dog could be taught to pick up and carry a toy on cue to replace tail chasing. Or a dog could be trained to nose touch a target to replace fly-snapping. Reinforcing the alternative behavior makes the problem behavior irrelevant. It also teaches the dog an appropriate behavior to perform when they would normally compulsively act out.
Use Pattern Interrupts
For dogs with location-specific compulsions like circling or pacing, pattern interrupts may help break the behavior cycle. This involves changing the environment to disrupt the dog's usual pattern. For example, blocking off areas used for pacing, moving furniture, or adding novel objects forces the dog to change its pattern. For mild cases, simply walking the dog through a different door or taking a new walking route can work as a pattern interrupt. These changes remove environmental triggers and cues for the compulsive behavior.
Teach Cue Discrimination
Some compulsive behaviors start as normal behaviors the dog was never taught to control. For example, a dog allowed to constantly lick people may escalate to compulsive licking behaviors. Teaching dogs to perform behaviors like licking on cue, then putting it under stimulus control, can reduce compulsive versions of the behavior. Dogs should be taught to understand cues like "Lick" and "Enough" to start and stop the behavior when requested. This cue discrimination gives them more control over the behavior.
Use Desensitization and Counterconditioning
For dogs with compulsive behaviors driven by anxiety or fear, desensitization and counterconditioning can be beneficial. This process gradually exposes dogs to anxiety-provoking stimuli at low, tolerable levels. Simultaneously, the dog is taught to substitute a positive, relaxed emotional response instead of stress or anxiety through reward-based training. For example, a dog scared of visitors could be counterconditioned to sit quietly and accept treats when visitors arrive. When applied correctly, desensitization and counterconditioning can modify the dog's emotional response and reduce stress-induced compulsions.
Consider Medications as Needed
In severe cases, anti-anxiety medications or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be recommended to reduce anxiety and compulsive behavior frequency. Medications can be combined with training for the best response. A veterinary behaviorist should be consulted to determine if pharmaceuticals could benefit the treatment plan for a dog with compulsive behavior issues.
Preventing Development of Compulsions
While some compulsive tendencies may be hereditary, owners can take steps to prevent development of problem behaviors through proper care and management:
- Provide ample daily exercise and mental stimulation
- Avoid confining dogs for long periods; give outdoor access
- Create a predictable routine and minimize stressful events
- Give dogs their own safe spaces and resting areas
- Provide appropriate chew toys to satisfy natural chewing/biting instinct
- Monitor for early signs of repetitive behaviors and intervene promptly
- Ensure any anxiety or medical issues are promptly addressed
- Consult a behaviorist if signs of compulsion appear
With attentive care and proactive training, many dogs can be prevented from ever developing compulsive disorders. But for dogs already displaying stereotypies, the training interventions described can help overcome these frustrating and potentially destructive behaviors. In most cases, compulsive behaviors can be successfully treated or managed with dedication and consistency from pet owners.
Finding a Qualified Trainer
Because compulsive behaviors can be challenging to treat, hiring a professional trainer is often advisable. When looking for a qualified trainer, pet owners should seek out candidates with specific experience successfully treating dogs with compulsive disorders. Warning signs of less qualified trainers include use of punishment, dominance theory, or recommendations to just ignore the behavior. Ideally, trainers should employ reward-based training and have education in animal behavior science and modification techniques.extra
Things to look for in a qualified trainer include:
- Certification through organizations like CCPDT, KPA, or IAABC
- Education in animal behavior science and learning theory
- Specific experience treating compulsive disorders
- Uses only reward-based training methods
- Customizes detailed behavior modification treatment plans
- Offers references from satisfied dog clients with similar issues
Owners can start by asking trusted veterinarians for trainer referrals. Training and behavior organizations like those listed above also maintain directories of certified professionals that are searchable by location. Working with a skilled force-free trainer maximizes the chances of successfully overcoming compulsive disorders through humane, effective behavior modification.
Compulsive behaviors in dogs should not be dismissed as just “quirky” pet behaviors. Left unchecked, they can seriously impact a dog’s welfare and quality of life. The exact cause is often multifactorial – stemming from stress, lack of stimulation, genetics, and more. While medication may help in some cases, training is a critical component of treatment. Techniques like enrichment, interruption and redirection, differential reinforcement, and desensitization can all help modify or extinguish unwanted compulsive actions. With environmental management and dedicated training from pet owners, dogs displaying mild to moderate compulsions can overcome these restrictive behaviors and thrive. In more extreme cases, consulting both a veterinary behaviorist and certified trainer is recommended. Working together, most dogs with compulsive disorders can experience dramatic improvement in their behavior and wellbeing.