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More on shadow chasing and OCD

When we talk about obsessive behavior in dogs, we talk about certain behaviors that the dog does, seemingly without purpose, and in many cases to the detriment of quality of life.

Here we will visit the common types of compulsive behaviors seen in our dogs, and address some of the misinformation concerning these behaviors.

First, in humans Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a form of anxiety that causes the sufferer to feel a constant lack of control - the behaviors expressed are seen as a way of exerting that control, only they fail to make the sufferer feel any better (or only marginally so) so, they repeat the behavior over and over again. Think about leaving the house and wondering if you forgot to close the garage door. You turn around and drive home and the garage door is closed. Reassured, you go on with your day. An OCD sufferer does not, they find themselves brought back to the drive way time and time again.

Obviously, dogs are not humans, but it is always a good idea, when we see similar behaviors in animals, to at least explore the human literature.

First, OCD or CCD (Canine Compulsive Disorder) in dogs has a genetic component. Expression is also genetic. By this, I mean, shadow chasing is most often (but not exclusively) seen in herding breeds (border collies, cattle dogs, etc…) tail chasing shows up in German Shepherds, Dobermans, and border collies. Spaniels can do either. Retrievers and Dobermans will lick obsessively. Fly chasing, while a form of focal seizure in some cases can also be a form of CCD.

Beyond genetics, what causes one dog to engage in these behaviors versus a similar dog that does not? We have very little science here, so, anecdotally we have the following situations that could cause a susceptible breed to begin engaging in these behaviors: opportunity - a single use of a laser light, or seeing lights shining off a surface, allowing a dog to chase their tail, or thinking it’s funny and encouraging it. Boredom seems to play a part; anxiety, either through uneven handling, or lack of direction, especially in the herding breeds.

All the breeds over-represented are sensitive working breeds. These are breeds either bred to control their environment (stock dogs, and to some extent dobes) or to react quickly to external cues (bird dogs). While it makes sense that these higher-drive, sensitive and generally environmentally reactive dogs would be over represented, the true causation at this time is largely speculative.

Treatment us also speculative. In horses that wind suck, a compulsive behavior common in thoroughbreds, giving a morphine agonist (something that blocks the opioid pathways in the brain) caused cessation of cribbing. However, it had no effect once treatment was discontinued.

Similar studies have been conducted with similar results in dogs for compulsive licking.

These studies imply that the opioid pathways are involved, and these pathways can help with anxiety. Unfortunately, these pathways are poorly understood.

IF CCD is a form of self-medication for anxiety, and IF performing these activities releases natural opioids into the brain, then we can try to understand CCD by trying to treat the underlying anxiety, trying to create similar brain chemistry results through other, better methods, and by increasing other ‘feel good’ endorphins.

So, how do we start? First, the dog cannot be permitted to pursue the behavior. It must be interrupted (not punished!) immediately. Every single time. Everytime the behavior is repeated, the pathways grow stronger, and choosing different pathways becomes more difficult.

If our model is correct, the inability to self soothe will increase the dog’s need to perform CCD behaviors, so other methods to increase other brain chemicals must replace the ones lost.

In Cody’s case, she took up jogging - looking for that runner’s high! Not running full blast, which releases adrenaline- a stress hormone, but jogging along at 6 mph with my ATV. This is my go-to first step with all CCD cases.

We also worked on confidence building games, engaging rewards-based training, and ensuring she got enough restful, high quality sleep.

Other dogs may require a complete change in household dynamics, removal of punitive training methods, clarifying what we want from our dogs, engagement of play, and puzzle games, etc…

Cody will still shadow chase when she’s tired (yes! So ‘just make them tired, does not work!), overwhelmed, or bored. She is not permitted to pursue her shadow chasing, and can be called off to some extent. Her quality of life is vastly improved, but the CCD behaviors, and pathways are still very present and while not requiring constant awareness, she can slip into unwanted behaviors quickly.

However, the work put in to help Cody in particular and other dogs with similar issues in general have had the effect of: lowering frustration aggression (Cody had a bite history, triggered by a child interfering with her shadow chasing) ; lowering overall frustration; increasing gut health through calm meal times - Cody was unable to eat and was 1/3 below her normal slender weight; increasing trainability; increasing resilience; increasing a dog’s ability to bond with their human; decreasing injuries to humans and to the dog - especially with tail-chasing; decreasing chances of behavioral euthanasia or death caused by chasing in unsafe circumstances.

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