In this podcast, Emily and I discuss obsessive behaviors in dogs, including common forms that they take, breeds that tend to exhibit them, how to avoid them, and how to address them in the event that your dog already has them.
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The conversation started with me reviewing the behavior that I allowed Cody to practice while we were camping in the mountains. Cody has a long history of a behavior called shadow chasing, a compulsive behavior seen in many herding breeds, and also found in dogs whose owners played with a laser pointer with them (don't do this!).
The behavior, in Cody's case was incredibly pronounced when I picked her up from her former owner. She got out of the woman's car, began shadow chasing the leaf shadows in the parking lot immediately and after about 5 minutes had to 'check out' by sliding under the car.
Cody was a mess!
Her shadow chasing was so pronounced that she was losing weight because she didn't know if or when a light might appear. She bit a child that interfered with her shadow chasing (which led to her being rehomed). Cody could not be outside, nor could anything flash in the house (a reflection of any kind could set her off), Flash lights and night running were out of the question.
I worked hard right away to help Cody, and she made impressive progress. I interrupted her every time she shadow chased, I tried to keep her away from obvious sources of light and shadow so that she wasn't allowed to continue practicing the behavior, and I gave her many jobs, both mental and physical to help her put her mental and physical energy to better use.
Here's an example of Cody shadow chasing a flashlight.
While Cody has come a long way, she still practices shadow chasing when she is outside for a while, if she's tired, or if she's stressed, and as discussed during the podcast, I accidentally allowed her to chase the shadows of butterflies for two hours because I thought she was enjoying herself. Her behavior the next day, obsessed, hyper-vigilant, unable to settle, told me the truth; Cody wasn't gleefully chasing butterflies, she was obsessively chasing their shadows. Of, course, I felt terrible, and spent the ride home from New Mexico helping Cody deal with all the reflections that happen in a moving vehicle (you'd be surprised!) and read articles in Psychology Today about OCD behavior in humans. This is what led to the podcast, and to a heightened awareness that Cody still needs some work.
Our podcast conversation ranged far and wide (as they often do) and we touched on an idea I've been noodling with to help Cody become more independent of her compulsion. I have since tried it with a cell phone light, but it wasn't bright enough. I also discussed what I'm trying with Maggie Evans (Behavior Manager at a Bay Area shelter, and former owner of The Dog Complex here in Tucson), and I will be using a laser pointer after all, because then I can have multiple pointers and use them to generalize on other lights since they are pretty visible regardless of lighting.
The goal - as discussed in the podcast, is to use the laser pointer as a cue to turn away from light. From there, the goal is to try to generalize the behavior (turning away) to all lights and shadows over time. The purpose is to not simply teach Cody an incompatible behavior, but to also give her an understanding that she has the power to turn away (this last bit is fluffy and touchy-feely, and of course we'll never know if it works).
Compulsions in humans and dogs alike can be a life long struggle, and the best thing we can do in dogs is prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Here are some of the suggestions we discussed in the podcast:
* Recognize common compulsive behaviors in dogs: shadow chasing, tail chasing, grabbing other body parts, spinning, chewing or licking excessively (noted in dobermans and cats), staring at random or invisible objects, obsessive barking, licking at the air, fly snapping (chasing), excessive drinking, ball chasing, and pacing can all be forms of obsessive behaviors in dogs
* Know your breeds, some breed traits lend themselves to compulsive behavior - herding breeds, some terriers, dobermans (as noted above), Bull terriers, Labrador retrievers, and others are implicated as having a genetic predisposition to certain obsessive behaviors.
*Watch for signs of compulsion and do not encourage it. A puppy chasing their tail is cute; a German Shepherd biting their tail partway off is traumatic. We do not say not to enjoy the first clumsy attempts a puppy takes to chase their own tail, we are simply saying that you watch for signs that the behavior is becoming too common.
*Do not allow dogs to practice compulsive behaviors. We discussed the books, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, and The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge, both books illustrate the brain's capacity to create pathways to habit, the staying power of established habits, and the power that we have to change those habits, and while compulsions are the dark side of habit, we can see that allowing a habitual pattern to persist could lead to compulsion in certain dogs.
*Take these behaviors seriously. I've had to tell numerous clients that the dog chasing lights is bad, and that a laser pointer is a bad call, and I see the doubt in their faces, and who could blame them? It seems so innocent. I warn people to use caution with ball throwing in certain breeds and personalities. Not because I want to be a killjoy, but because I've been in the room with the client whose dog just bit its own tail partway off; I've heard about the dogs euthanized because the shadow chasing grew to be too frustrating leading to aggression against family members (it's how I ended up with Cody in the first place). I discussed a terrible case recently with a fellow trainer,of a dog that unless tranquilized and wearing an Elizabethan collar would savagely attack its own tail, and would redirect on people that attempted to intervene. Every effort to save the dog failed and it was ultimately euthanized.
*These behaviors are rare! Don't freak out if your dog occasionally fixates on a flash of light, or a fly in the window pane! We are not talking about a common issue here - though it is more common in certain breeds. Like everything else in life, forewarned is forearmed, so better to recognize the behaviors in the event you ever need to, than to accidentally feed into them and create a wreck.
As for Cody, she is a far stronger and more resilient dog than when I picked her up years ago. She herds sheep, and sleeps at my feet. She is safe around my neighbor's child (though we are super cautious), and can walk past a leafy tree with hardly a glance. She eats like a pig, and sometimes struggles to maintain her slim figure. She can go outside and function, and she can go out at night and not chase the flashlight. Most days no one would even notice that she's ever had a problem.
But, as a trainer, and her person, I am obligated to keep searching for ways to help her even more. Because Cody deserves to live her best life.
References that Emily and I made during the podcast:
Look at That - a powerful tool to help fearful dogs get a handle on their environment and gain a reward history to facing fear. Invented by the brilliant trainer and author of Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt. Like any training technique Look at That (LAT) can have unintended consequences if not done with skill; a common one is the dog suddenly fixating on the very thing that they are supposed to be learning to feel neutral about. This I not a weakness in the technique as much as a weakness in training, or misapplication of timing.
Zen Bowl - we both blew it because neither of us could recall the inventor of this brilliant method of training stimulus control. Her name is Deb Jones, PhD, and she has written multiple books and DVD for training focus and behavior to dogs.