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.