Pet Care

Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

An American Eskimo mix is held

The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. A dog who displays compulsive behavior repeatedly performs one or more behaviors over and over, to the extent that it interferes with his normal life. The behavior he’s doing doesn’t seem to have any purpose, but he’s compelled to do it anyway. Some dogs will spend almost all their waking hours engaging in repetitive behaviors. They might lose weight, suffer from exhaustion and even physically injure themselves. Dogs display many different kinds of compulsions, such as spinning, pacing, tail chasing, fly snapping, barking, shadow or light chasing, excessive licking and toy fixation. It’s important to note that normal dogs also engage in behaviors like barking and licking, but they usually do so in response to specific triggers.

Some breeds are more likely to develop certain compulsive disorders. For instance, many Doberman pinschers, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers have excessive licking problems (also known as acral lick dermatitis or lick granuloma). Doberman pinschers seem to engage in flank sucking more often than other breeds. Bull terriers repetitively spin more often than other breeds. German shepherd dogs seem vulnerable to tail-chasing compulsions. Sometimes they even bite and chew their tails when they “catch” them, causing hair loss or serious injury.

Compulsive behavior can develop for a number of reasons. Sometimes dogs start compulsive behaviors for no obvious reason at all. Other dogs develop compulsions after having physical conditions that cause them to lick or chew their bodies. For example, if your dog injures his paw and licks it, he might continue his repetitive licking behavior after his injury has completely healed. A dog’s lifestyle can sometimes contribute to the development compulsive behavior. For example, repetitive behavior is more likely to develop in dogs whose living conditions cause anxiety or stress. Examples of dogs in situations that can contribute to the development of compulsive disorders include:

  • Dogs who are frequently tied up or confined and forced to live in small areas
  • Dogs who experience social conflict, such as a long separation from a companion or frequent aggression from other dogs in the family
  • Dogs who lack opportunities to engage in normal canine behavior, such as socializing with people and other dogs
  • Dogs who deal with conflicting emotions or motivations (for instance, a dog needs to go into the yard to relieve himself but is afraid to enter the area because of a frightening experience that once took place there)
  • Dogs who are physically abused or punished randomly and unpredictably
     

Research has shown that although conflict and anxiety in a dog’s life can initially trigger a compulsive disorder, the compulsive behavior might continue to happen after the stressful elements in a dog’s life have been eliminated.

Common Compulsive Behaviors

  • Spinning   Some dog spin in place and aren’t easily distracted when doing so.
  • Pacing   Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern. Pacing can be in a circle or in a straight line.
  • Tail chasing   A dog runs in a tight circle, as if chasing his tail. Tail chasing may include physical damage to the tail or just the motion of chasing it.
  • Fly snapping   Some dogs chomp at the air, as if they’re trying to catch imaginary flies.
  • Barking   Some dogs barks almost nonstop when there is no apparent trigger.
  • Toy fixation   Some dogs repeatedly pounce on, push, chew or toss a certain toy or toys in the air. Often the pattern of play is repetitive. This kind of compulsive behavior frequently occurs in a specific room, but a dog might engage in compulsive behavior with specific toys in any room.
  • Shadow or light chasing   A dog chases shadows or light.
  • Self-Injurious chewing, licking or scratching   Some dogs inflict injury to themselves through frequently chewing, licking or scratching some part of his body over and over. NOTE: Dogs who excessively or compulsively lick or chew themselves must be taken to a veterinarian to rule out physical causes, such as pain and itching.
  • Flank sucking   Some dogs suck on the fur or skin on their flanks (the area above the thigh).
  • Licking surfaces or objects   Some dogs frequently lick a surface or an object (for example, a spot on the floor or couch) over and over again.
  • Excessive water drinking   Some dogs repetitively drink water, even when they’re not thirsty.
     

Rule Out Medical Problems First

Underlying medical problems or other physical situations often create conditions that irritate dogs and can cause them to react with behavior that looks compulsive to pet parents. A dog with allergies, parasites, a skin condition or pain will lick or bite the affected area constantly. In addition to specific irritations, medical conditions that can affect your dog’s behavior include epilepsy, head injuries, bacterial or viral infections, and poor vision. In all of these situations, the underlying medical problem must be treated by a veterinarian before behavioral treatment will help.

Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out

Separation-Induced Barking

A dog only barks excessively or shows evidence of self-injurious behavior or other compulsions when he’s left alone or separated from his owner. Please see our article, Separation Anxiety, for more information about this kind of behavior problem.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Age-related cognitive dysfunction can contribute to compulsive behavior. If he’s older (over six years of age) and performing compulsive behaviors, your dog might be suffering from cognitive dysfunction. Other symptoms of cognitive dysfunction include disorientation, a decrease in social interaction and forgetting previously learned behaviors. To learn more about cognitive dysfunction and other behavior problems commonly seen in older dogs, please see our article, Behavior Problems in Older Dogs.

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 (see below). 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). (Please see below for more information.)

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.

Provide Plenty of “Jobs” for Your Dog to Do

Providing lots of physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behavior problems, especially compulsive disorders. Exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to engage in compulsive behaviors. To keep your dog busy and happy, try the following suggestions:

  • Give your dog at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity (for example, running and swimming) every day—and at any time when he might encounter a stressful situation. This will help him relax and remain calm.
  • Play fun, interactive games with your dog, such as fetch and tug-of-war. (If you’d like more information, please see our articles, Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War and Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch.)
  • Take your dog on daily walks and outings. Take different routes and visit new places as often as possible so that he can experience novel smells and sights.
  • If your dog likes other dogs, let him play off-leash with his canine buddies.
  • Frequently provide food puzzle toys, like the KONG®, the Buster® Cube, the Tricky Treat™ Ball and the Tug-a-Jug™. (To learn more about how to use puzzle toys, please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG Toy.) You can feed your dog his meals in these toys or stuff them with a little peanut butter, cheese or yogurt. Also give your dog a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things, especially during stressful times. Puzzle toys and chew items encourage chewing and licking, which have been shown to have a calming effect on dogs.
  • Make your dog “hunt” his meals by hiding small piles of his kibble around your house or yard when you leave. Most dogs love this game!
  • Enroll in a reward-based training class to increase your dog’s mental activity and enhance the bond between you and your dog. Contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) for group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of great skills to learn and games to play together. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.
  • Get involved in dog sports, such as agility, freestyle (dancing with your dog) or flyball. 

For more fun, effective ways to spice up your dog’s life with physical and mental exercise, please see our articles, Enriching Your Dog’s Life and Exercise for Dogs.

Systematic Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are two treatments that are often used together in a single procedure to reduce or resolve behavior problems that occur as reactions to certain triggers and situations. Systematic desensitization is designed to decrease (desensitize) a dog's overreaction to something in a step-by-step (systematic) way. It helps the dog to habituate to, or become more comfortable with, a thing, person, other animal, place or situation that upsets him.

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 behavior.

For a thorough explanation of these combined treatments, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning.

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 behaviors.

Medications May Help

Always consult with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.

In some cases, it can be helpful to use medication in addition to training and enrichment. If your dog is so anxious or stressed by whatever upsets him that his compulsive behavior cannot be stopped or redirected, or if he shows improvement for a time but then seems to stop improving, medication might be needed to make your treatment plan effective. Medications may also be necessary for dogs who have been engaging in compulsive behavior for a long time. If your veterinarian prescribes a medication for your dog’s compulsive behavior, be prepared to give it to your dog every day. Keep in mind that it may take a few weeks before you see changes in your dog’s behavior.