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Compulsive Behavior in Dogs


Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out continued...

What to Do About Your Dog’s Compulsive Behavior

Treating compulsive disorders can prove challenging because compulsions can result from both learned behavior and chemical imbalances in the brain. The standard treatment approach involves a combination of behavior modification and drug therapy. If possible, all situations that trigger a dog’s compulsive behavior should be avoided or counterconditioned. Additionally, drastic increases in mental and physical stimulation can help.

Identify and Remove the Problem

Identify stressful things or situations that seem to trigger your dog’s compulsive behavior. If you’re able to identify triggers and remove them, you can greatly reduce your dog’s stress level. Of course, it’s not always possible to avoid or get rid of the thing or situation that seems to upset your dog. For example, if your dog is anxious during thunderstorms, you certainly can’t keep those from happening! If you can’t remove stressful triggers, you’ll need to do some training to help your dog feel differently about whatever’s causing his anxiety. You can accomplish this goal by using a procedure called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC).

Train Your Dog

If you use methods based on positive reinforcement (rewarding your dog for behaviors you like so that they happen more often), teaching your dog some useful obedience skills will strengthen the relationship between the two of you. It will also provide an opportunity for you to interact with your dog in a positive way. To learn more about dog training, please see our article, Training Your Dog. After you’ve taught your dog a few useful skills, you can use them in your treatment plan. Read on to learn how.

Distract and Redirect Your Dog’s Attention

As soon as your dog starts to engage in a compulsive behavior, distract him. Give him something else to do. You can use food, toys, play or praise. (However, if your dog is toy-fixated, avoid trying to distract him with another toy.) Try offering a food-filled puzzle toy, such as a KONG™ stuffed with peanut butter, or give your dog a rawhide to chew. You can also ask your dog to perform a previously learned behavior or trick that he can’t do at the same time as the compulsive behavior. For example, if your dog starts to spin or chase his tail, you can ask him to sit or lie down. If your dog starts to lick, you can ask him to shake or perform another trick instead. Sometimes this is enough to stop the compulsive cycle before it begins. Keep in mind that you need to teach your dog these new skills in advance, when he’s not stressed, before you can use them to distract him from performing a compulsive behavior. Once your dog reliably responds when you ask him to do something you’ve taught him in a stress-free environment, you can start to integrate that skill into his daily routine and use it whenever you see compulsive behavior begin.

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