Features October 2008 Issue

Help for OCD Dogs

Why you should (and how you can) cure your dog's obsessive-compulsive disorder.

You’ve probably heard about people who wash their hands repeatedly until the skin wears off, who pull out their hair until they’re bald, or return home, time after time after time, to make sure the stove is turned off. These are obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs).

Sad to say, OCD behaviors aren’t confined to humans; dogs get them, too. Oh, you won’t see your dog worrying about whether the stove was left on, nor will you catch him washing his paws repeatedly in the sink. Dogs have a whole set of potential OCDs all their own, specific to canine behavior. Canine OCDs are just as capable of destroying a dog’s ability to function as human OCDs are capable of affecting human lives.

German Shepherd Dogs are prone to a number of OCD behaviors, including tailchasing, licking themselves until sores develop, and fly-snapping. This dog is so distracted by an imaginary fly that he stops playing with a real toy!

What is OCD?
MedicineNet.com says this about OCDs:

“OCD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding. One of the anxiety disorders, OCD is a potentially disabling condition that can persist throughout a person’s life. The individual who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. OCD occurs in a spectrum from mild to severe, but if severe and left untreated, can destroy a person’s capacity to function at work, at school, or even in the home.”

The last thing you want is for your dog to develop an OCD. The more you know about them, the better armed you are to prevent OCDs, and the better able to recognize and take action sooner rather than later - a critically important element of a successful behavior modification program for OCDs.

The same GSD sometimes displays a bit of a “drinking problem.” He gets so preoccupied with snapping and pawing at his water, that he fails to drink! Then, still thirsty, he’ll whine for more water.

An “obsessive” debate
There is some disagreement among animal behavior professionals about applying the term “obsessive” to canine behavior. The “anti-s” declare that the term “obsessive” refers to the dog’s thoughts, and because we can never really know what a dog is thinking, it’s therefore inappropriate to use the term in reference to dog behavior; we should simply call it “Canine Compulsive Disorder.” The word “compulsive” refers to the dog’s actions, which we can clearly see, so it’s okay to use that term in relation to dogs.

Those who favor using the term “obsessive” argue that we know a dog’s brain is similar in many ways to a human’s, albeit with a smaller cortex, and the observed compulsive behavior patterns are so similar to human OCDs that it only makes sense to call it obsessive, even with regard to dogs. A growing number of behavior professionals share this opinion - as do I - and so “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” is becoming an increasingly used term in dog behavior work.

Noted veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall suggests that as much as two to three percent of our canine population may be afflicted with OCD. She also identifies it as one of the most difficult canine behavioral disorders to successfully treat, and emphasizes that genetic, environmental, and neurochemical/neurophysiological elements all come into play.

Certain breeds have a clear genetic propensity for specific OCDs. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to fly-snapping, and shadow-and light-chasing; Doberman Pinschers tend to flank-sucking and self-mutilation from licking; a high percentage of Golden and Labrador Retrievers seem to suffer from pica (eating inappropriate objects); and several of the herding breeds are likely to demonstrate OCD spinning and tail-chasing behaviors (see “OCDs and Breed Predispositions,” next page). It’s a good idea to research your own breed thoroughly, so you can be especially watchful for telltale signs of any that may plague your breed.

In addition to the genetic component of OCD behavior, environment plays a significant role. OCDs most often emerge in young dogs, between 6 to 12 months, in dogs who have a genetic predisposition to the behavior, when subjected to environmental stressors that trigger the onset of the behavior. Dogs who may be genetically prone to a behavior may dodge the OCD bullet if they avoid being significantly stressed during this period. Or maybe not.

Early signs
The early sign of any OCD is the occasional performance of a behavior out of context. It’s normal for a dog to chase a real fly; it’s not normal for him to start snapping at things in the air that you can’t see. Because well-practiced OCDs are heartbreakingly difficult to modify, it’s critically important to identify and modify OCD behavior in its early stages.

I’ve had two different clients who had dogs with fly-snapping behavior. One was a Bernese Mountain Dog, the other a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Both are on the list of breeds at high risk for this behavior. The Berner’s owners, already Peaceable Paws clients, identified the behavior at its onset and we immediately took appropriate steps to modify the behavior. Leo eventually stopped snapping at imaginary flies. The Cav’s owners also identified the behavior at onset and contacted the breeder, who told them, “Oh, some Cavs just do that. His sire and several of his littermates do it, too.”

By the time Widget reached the age of 18 months and his owners sought professional behavior assistance, the condition was severe. When I visited their home I found a dog in misery, unable to be in a lighted room for any length of time without becoming extremely anxious, eventually snapping nonstop at his invisible tormentors. He could escape his mental torture only by running into the darkened dining room and hiding in his crate. This poor dog required extensive treatment with psychotropic drugs as well as a behavior modification program to bring the debilitating behavior under control.

Our own Cardigan Corgi, Lucy, exhibited tail-chasing behavior in the shelter before we adopted her, both in her kennel and during the assessment process. Note that tail-chasing and spinning are seen disproportionately in the herding breeds. Fortunately for us and for her, Lucy was young when we adopted her (six months). Simply removing her from the stressful shelter environment and providing her with large daily doses of physical exercise resolved her behavior.

Ben, a four-month-old Golden Retriever client in Monterey, was also treated successfully, simply by having his owners remove all reinforcement (getting up and leaving the room) the instant the pup started to chase his tail. His spinning behavior ceased within a month. A Standard Poodle client I worked with in Santa Cruz was not so fortunate. At age three, Giselle’s spinning behavior was well-established; her owners couldn’t even walk her on leash because of her nonstop spinning anytime she was in the least bit stimulated. Like the Cavalier, she required extensive pharmaceutical intervention.

The following are the most common OCD behaviors seen in dogs:

• Lick granuloma: Also known as Acral Lick Dermatitis or ALD, this disorder presents as repetitive licking of the front or hind legs, ultimately causing a bare spot, then an open sore, sometimes causing systemic infection. In extreme cases, a limb may need to be amputated.

 

• Light-chasing (includes shadow-chasing): Likely related to predatory behavior, light-chasing is characterized by staring, biting at, chasing, or barking at lights and shadows. This behavior is sometimes triggered by an owner playing with the dog with flashlights or laser lights.

 

• Tail-chasing/spinning: Also perhaps a displaced predatory behavior, tail-chasing often starts as an apparently innocuous, “cute” behavior that is reinforced by owner attention. Only when it attains obsessive proportions do many owners realize the harm in reinforcing this behavior.

• Flank-sucking: A self-explanatory term, flank-sucking behavior is likely a displaced nursing behavior. Similarly, some dogs may suck on blankets or soft toys - behaviors that can be equally obsessive, but are less self-destructive.

 

• Fly-snapping: No, this one doesn’t refer to dogs who chase real flies - that’s a normal behavior; the OCD version of fly-snapping involves snapping at imaginary flies. Dogs who exhibit this behavior may appear anxious, apparently unable to escape their imaginary tormentors.

While some fly-snapping may be seizure-related, a significant percentage of sufferers don’t demonstrate behaviors typical of seizure activity, and those episodes are characterized as true OCD behaviors.

 

• Pica: While many dogs are happy to eat objects that humans consider inappropriate, dogs with pica do so obsessively. Pica induces some dogs to obsessively eat and swallow small objects such as stones, acorns, and twigs, while others ingest large amounts of paper, leather, or other substances. Pica can cause life-threatening bowel obstruction.

It’s important to note that dogs who are prone to one obsessive compulsive behavior can easily adopt another. I firmly prohibited my husband from playing with Lucy with a laser light, or water from the hose, knowing full well she’d delight in these activities. We didn’t need light-chasing on top of tail-chasing! Ben, the tail-chasing Golden pup, had a more serious OCD problem: he was obsessive about eating pebbles, small sticks, and acorns. At the tender age of four months he had already undergone one emergency surgery for intestinal blockage, and had to wear a muzzle when he was outside, on leash or off, to prevent a recurrence.

For this reason, simply suppressing the behavior through punishment is a dangerously inappropriate approach. Not only does the punishment add stress to a behavior already triggered and exacerbated by stress, it heightens the risk of having the dog transfer to a new OCD. Far better to approach an OCD modification program more scientifically.

Modifying OCD behavior
There are five key components to most successful OCD modification programs:

• Increase exercise. A useful part of almost any behavior modification program, exercise relieves stress and tires your dog so he has less energy to practice his OCD behavior. While physical exercise is hugely important, don’t overlook the value of mental exercise for relieving stress and tiring a dog mentally. (See “A Puzzling Activity,” June 2008, and “Mind Games,” October 2004, for more information on how to keep dogs busy.)

• Reduce stress. This is an important and obvious step, given that OCDs are triggered and exacerbated by stress. You will need to identify as many stressors as possible in your dog’s life. Have the whole family participate in making a list of all the things you can identify that cause stress for your dog - not just the one(s) that appear to trigger the obsessive behavior.

Many of us have “fetchaholics” – dogs who seem “obsessed” with fetching and develop a variety of demand-behaviors designed to get people to play fetch with them. This behavior is different from a true OCD behavior. First, because it’s in context (in the case, the presence of the ball). Also, it can be turned off, even if it’s difficult to do so. The behavior really is under the dog’s control.

Then go down the list identifying any you can simply eliminate (i.e., shock collar for that evil underground shock fence) and commit to removing those from his environment. Next, mark those that might be appropriate for counter-conditioning - changing his opinion of them from “Ooh, scary/stressful!” to “Yay! Good thing!” (See “Fear Itself,” April 2007).

Finally, try to manage his environment to at least reduce his exposure to those that can’t be eliminated or modified.

• Remove reinforcement. All too often, owners mistakenly think obsessive behaviors are cute or funny. They reinforce the behavior with laughter and attention, and may even trigger the behavior deliberately, unaware of the harm they’re doing. When the behavior becomes so persistent that it’s annoying, the dog may be reinforced with “negative attention” when the owner yells at him to stop doing it.

As in the case of Ben, the Golden pup, removing reinforcement by having all humans leave the room can work well to help extinguish an OCD in its early stages.

• Reinforce an incompatible behavior. This was also an effective part of Ben’s modification program. When the puppy wasn’t chasing his tail, his owners used a high rate of reinforcement for calm behavior, especially for lying quietly on his bed. Also, look for other calm behaviors to reinforce during otherwise potentially stimulating moments, such as sitting quietly at the door for his leash rather than leaping about in excitement over the pending walk. (See “Uncommonly Calm,” April 2008.)

• Explore behavior modification drugs if/when appropriate. With persistent and well-practiced OCDs, referral to a qualified veterinary behaviorist for consideration of pharmaceutical intervention is nearly always imperative. The selection, prescription, and monitoring of the strong, potentially harmful psychotropic drugs used for modification of difficult behaviors requires the education and skill of a licensed veterinary professional.

You can find veterinary behavior professionals at avsabonline.org or veterinarybehaviorists.org.

If some of this information has alarmed you - good! Obsessive-compulsive disorders are alarming.

If your dog, or a friend’s, is showing early signs of OCD behavior, we want you to take it seriously, and intervene immediately, in order to prevent the behavior from developing into a debilitating disorder. Dogs like Lucy, Ben, and Leo can lead full and happy lives because steps were taken early to prevent their behaviors from becoming extreme.

If your dog already has a severe obsessive compulsive behavior, do something about it now. Dogs like Widget can lead quality lives because their owners care enough to find solutions for difficult behaviors. Make the commitment to find the help you need so you and your dog can have a full and happy life together.

Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Pat is also author of The Power of Positive Dog Training; Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog; Positive Perspectives II: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog, and the brand-new Play with Your Dog.

Comments (11)

I just recently took in a 10 year old neutered male when a nearby shelter had to be evacuated. He is an anxious dog who has been at the shelter for 7 years. I noticed him licking the floors and me at times. But it was when he was introduced to one of my spayed females that the compulsive licking started. He relentlessly licks her ears, flank, privates,and occasionally mounts her. I've come to think that it is more a compulsive behavior from anxiety, particularly since it worsened right after a stressful visit to the vet. I've only had him a little over one week and hope I can keep him. I'm going to try the calm and reassuring techniques as well as the time outs that many of you have suggested. Thanks.

Posted by: Susan C. | March 25, 2014 7:58 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for all the great info

I'm not so sure about leaving the room when a pets exhibits and OCD behavior.

1. The dog might continue the behavior when the pet parents are gone. nd some OCD behavior might be harmful

2. The dog might already be stressed and leaving the dog alone might be more stressful

But we definitely don't want the dog to practice the behavior. Instead I suggest that pet parents look for their dog's "tell" - something the dog does before the behavior happens. Then redirect the dog at that point or earlier. Go for a walk, play a game, provide a food puzzle etc.. Positively stop the behavior before it starts.

Thanks La Trenda

Posted by: La Trenda - Puddins Training Tips | February 5, 2014 12:42 PM    Report this comment

I had an odd one yesterday. A 20 month old dog who had been seriously undersocialized (crated by an owner who worked full time) until re-homed at 18 months.

They original family used a laser pointer for play, and he is obsessed with flashes, reflections and moving lights.

However he also apparently SELF STIMULATES by waving his metal food and water bowls around.

Posted by: Claudia | November 15, 2013 5:16 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if the dogs snapping at flies in a lighted room might have floaters in their eyes? I have them and the first time I noticed it was in a very bright, white room. It looks just like a swarm of gnats in your peripheral vision. I don't know what one could do for the dog if this is the case, but perhaps it isnt' truly OCD behavior.

Posted by: Ingrid C | September 1, 2013 10:36 PM    Report this comment

My 5 1/2 year old labradoodle has just started chasing flys. It is clear to me that he is extremely wound up and stressed. I'm not even sure that there are always flys that he is chasing. We recently started having more flys around, due to the use of Organic fertilzer in our flower beds and planters. This is not his normal behavior. I also noticed that he was looking for more play time. I will make sure that he gets some serious play time tonight. We usually walk every morning for an hour but of course this morning it rained and we only got in about 20 mins. Thanks for the timely article.

Posted by: Diane G | August 26, 2013 8:32 AM    Report this comment

I subscribe to Dogs Naturally magazine & in this month's issue I was just reading about the short & long term reactions to the rabies vaccines given to our dogs. Many of the behavioral symptoms that can result from the vaccine are the OCD symptoms written about here. It is a timely, informative article written by a vet and based upon research done by Dr. Ronald Schultz at the University of Wisconsin Vet School. For anyone with a dog displaying OCD behaviors, I would encourage them to pick up the Sept/Oct issue of Dogs Naturally and read more about the link between rabies and OCD in our canine friends.

Posted by: Janet P | August 24, 2013 7:25 PM    Report this comment

What can I tell my neighbor. Their dog wears a full time collar due to flank licking.

Posted by: Unknown | August 24, 2013 5:51 PM    Report this comment

I sit in my front room everyday and look at the poor dog across the street. I talked with the owner. He told me his dog is OCD (flank licking) so he wears a big plastic collar 24/7:( He said its that or he'd be put down. If allowed he'd lick himself raw.

Posted by: Unknown | August 24, 2013 5:46 PM    Report this comment

I adopted Rascal when he was 5 months old and was hospitalized for a badly broken femur, which required both a pin and an external fixator. He had had a toddler jump off the bed and land on him (he's a little beagle mix) and the owners didn't take him to the vet for 2 days because they couldn't afford treatment. When his pin and fixator were removed at 6 months, they neutered him and gave him his shots all at once, which wasn't my preference. His OCD symptoms began at 8 months, very suddenly. I had fallen asleep in my chair and woke to a strange thumping noise. Rascal had noticed the flash of light from my reading lamp reflected from his new ID tag and was obsessively pouncing on the light reflections on the floor. I could not distract him except by picking him up and taking him away. My vet said I should get him on Prozac as his whole personality transformed in a heartbeat to being completely enthralled by lights and shadows on the ground. Before I could get his prescription filled, I decided to interrupt him by carrying him to his crate every time he failed to respond to his name while engaged in his behavior. The first evening, I was a jumping jack, giving him 33 time outs of 1 minute each. The second evening, he had 19, and the third evening only 3. Daytimes he came to work with me, where it wasn't an issue. My criterion was, if I could distract him with his name and then a game or toy, great. But I only said his name once before carrying him to his crate. We didn't have to use the prozac, as I have been able to get his attention away almost every time. But it is still his default behavior when he is bored and the light is right. Interestingly, he invented a game for himself using light. I have a mobile of prisms hanging in a bay window. Every day at a certain point of the sunrise, the light hits the prisms and is reflected on the floor. He watches for that moment, jumps up and sets the mobile to spinning, pounces on the lights with enthusiasm, and repeats it as often as the light allows. As long as I can get his attention away by calling his name, I let him do this. On very bright days, sometimes he gets lost in light shadows, but if he gets in too deep to distract, I give him a momentary time out. Once he recovered enough to do Agility, I found the exercise took some of the edge off. But he is still delighted by light and shadow patterns, especially moving ones, 2 and a half years later.

Posted by: Laurie R | August 24, 2013 3:00 PM    Report this comment

One important factor that isn't mentioned here is allergy. Just like in humans, allergies to foods and environmental substances can greatly affect behavior. An allergy is a stress in itself.

Feeding a food that contains grain could be a cause of behavior issues as well as just about any other food. Some vets do allergy testing by blood and there is always an elimination diet that one can try on their own. For example, feed only chicken and white rice for a few weeks and see if the behavior goes away. If so, gradually add in other foods one by one.

Posted by: Hatfield | August 24, 2013 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Very interesting article - I never realized that dogs could develop OCD - Fortunately, neither of mine have this problem.

Posted by: Elaine J | August 24, 2013 10:16 AM    Report this comment

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