Compulsive Behavior in Dogs
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out continued...
Counterconditioning, performed together with desensitization, involves
giving the dog things he really likes, such as delicious treats or favorite
toys, while he’s being shown or exposed to whatever upsets him. This process
changes (counters) the dog’s feelings about the trigger. Changing his emotional
response to the trigger leads to changes in behavior. If the dog feels
differently, he’ll act differently.
For instance, a dog who fears being handled reacts by tensing his body,
cowering and growling when he sees a hand reaching toward him. One way of
changing those learned responses is to teach the dog to feel good about a hand
reaching toward him. You could teach the dog to expect a tasty treat or a game
of chase (good things he likes) right after hands reach toward him, and the
dog’s emotional reaction to hands reaching for him would change.
Alternatively, you could teach the dog to perform a specific behavior, such
as touching his nose to or backing away from the outstretched hand, for a
reward. Changing the dog’s behavior can lead to changes in his emotional
response as well. It’s possible, however, that the dog will remain frightened
while still performing the new behavior. In most cases, it’s best to treat the
dog’s underlying emotional state first (through desensitization and
counterconditioning) and then focus on teaching him a specific, alternative
For a thorough explanation of these combined treatments, please see our
Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to
carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will
get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to
the dog’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and
interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a
trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a
desensitization and counterconditioning plan, please read our Finding Professional
Help article for information about locating a qualified professional in
your area, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate
CAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB).
If you decide to hire a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) because you
can’t find a behaviorist in your area, be sure to determine whether she or he
has professional or academic training and extensive experience using
desensitization and counterconditioning to successfully treat compulsive
behaviors. This kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.
What NOT to Do
Do not punish or scold your dog for compulsive behavior. Compulsive
behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress
responses! Your dog is performing repetitive behaviors because he’s anxious and
upset. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could
get much worse.
Do not give your dog attention, like petting and praise, when he performs
compulsive behaviors because doing so might cause an increase in those