Obsessions and obsessive behaviours in dogs


The subject of obsessions and obsessive behaviours in dogs is somewhat forgotten, or maybe just overlooked by breeders and dog owners themselves, so I wanted to give a little insight into the problem and try to find the causes. These non-standard behaviours are called compulsive-obsessive behaviours. Otherwise, they are called stereotypical behaviours, i.e. behaviours that are constantly repeated but do not make sense.

What can be called an obsession?

Examples of compulsive-obsessive behaviours are:
1. Chasing one’s tail.
2. Chasing non-existent shadows or sunlight.
3. Catching imaginary flies.
4. Obsession with a ball or stick.
5. Licking and sucking objects and body parts (sides, paws).

Causes of compulsive-obsessive behaviour

Where do obsessions come from? Are these behaviours learned or due to dog genetics, or maybe pure chance? Sometimes is it not the case that these behaviours are triggered by a particular environmental factor that has left its mark on the dog’s psyche? All of these factors, and each one individually, can be real and fuel dog obsessions. The subject is very difficult and broad and the causes can overlap which can make diagnosis difficult.
The main cause of the aforementioned behaviours in canine genetics, and ongoing research have confirmed the presence of the gene responsible for these behaviours in some dog breeds, as well as its transmission to offspring. Bull terriers and German Shepherds (especially breeds with a higher pain threshold) are prone to excessive tail wagging. Often dogs exhibit this behaviour when they are excited or agitated by a situation. Many researchers believe that this is related to the ability to release excessive amounts of endorphin into the brain, which contributes to the presentation of obsessive behaviour. The chasing of their tail or the frantic spinning itself works on the principle of self-rewarding behaviour, i.e. the more spins the more endorphin, the more endorphin, the more spins and so on until they fall. In extreme cases, dogs do not eat or drink, and their movements are uncoordinated. While making crazy turns, they do not pay attention to objects, thus losing contact with reality. It is interesting, however, that studies have confirmed correlations between acute dermatitis in bulldogs, increased aggression, hydrocephalus (confirmed by CT scans), EEG recording characteristic of epileptic seizures, and obsessive tail-chasing. A disease called lethal atrophic dermatitis is associated with abnormal zinc metabolism, which is caused by changes in certain areas of the dog’s brain. Interestingly, in laboratory mice, studies have confirmed zinc deficiency and changes in the structure of the middle ear, resulting in constant circling.
An additional factor (and in many cases the driving factor behind the obsessions) is the dog’s inexhaustible energy combined with loneliness and poor parenting. The approval of the owner (not always aware of the problem) is also an incentive for this type of energy channelling and unfortunately often finds an outlet „at the end of the dog’s tail”.

Substrates of obsessive-compulsive behaviour

Obsessive licking and sucking of different parts of the body (sides, paws) and objects (blankets, pillows) is very common in dog breeds such as Dobermans, labradors and German dogs, indicating a genetic basis for this problem. The environment in which a dog grows up in the first 3 months of its life has a very strong influence on this type of behaviour. Too early separation from the mother and an environment poor in stimuli can be a factor that brings out such behaviour in dogs. For a puppy that spends most of its time alone doing nothing, licking quickly develops into a self-rewarding activity. Once this behaviour becomes ingrained it very quickly develops into a stereotype, or automatic, aimless behaviour. Obsessive licking of the same spots causes ulcerative dermatitis and oozing wounds that are very difficult to heal.

Hunting for light, both real and imaginary, and catching invisible flies, in some cases is strongly correlated with deafness in a dog, but it does not have to be. Often these behaviours are perpetuated by the owner himself. In puppyhood, the dog gets permission to bite the owner’s fingers, but also often gets a dull and eventless life as a package. Again, separation from the bitch too early can have a significant effect on sensory homeostasis. Also, an overly indulgent dog mother who does not put the brakes on the toddler’s abnormal behaviour and a lack of contact with other dogs can underlie obsessive-compulsive behaviour problems. The dog may have a problem with self-control, which is why bridging stimuli are so important in dog therapy. These involve distracting the dog from undesirable behaviour with sound or touch.

Obsessive playing with a ball or carrying a stick is also related to overactivity in certain areas of the brain. Initially, the owner may not accept that their dog’s behaviour is overstepping the boundaries because, after all, playing with a ball or carrying a stick is nothing wrong. Of course, it isn’t, provided that we know the limit of these behaviours and it is not a nuisance to ourselves. It is worth realizing this and taking decisive action not to lead to the development of a deep stereotype. The dog grows, its brain develops and with it all bad habits and behaviours. Counter-conditioning training, i.e. redirecting the dog’s attention to another behaviour, is a good way of getting him out of his fixation on a particular object. This requires constant consistency and relentlessness on the part of the owner. Such behaviour in dogs is also associated with a strong hunting instinct that has not been quietened and poorly expended energy.

Eliminating the obsession – the remedial programme

1. Bridging stimuli – distracting the dog (sound, touch)
2. Movement – not only walking but also exercising (swimming, running) is an excellent way to channel a dog’s energy but also to strengthen the bond with your dog. It is worth remembering that a tired dog is a happy dog!
3. Diet – change to a low-energy diet and avoid overfeeding.
4. Doggy puzzles – toys into which we can hide various treats or pastes or even white or yellow cheese. In our absence, the dog will focus its attention on getting the food out of the toy rather than injuring its body or destroying household equipment. We can successfully alternate hard-to-reach treats to maintain our dog’s interest and stimulate his senses at all times.
5. Safe toys – for chewing, biting and fetching.
6. Changes in lifestyle and environment – avoiding stressors and establishing as far as possible a consistent daily routine
7. Breeding selection of genetically affected dogs.
8. Pharmacological treatment – endorphin blockers. A combination of behavioural therapy and pharmacology in more severe cases is satisfactory.

Development of obsessive-compulsive behaviour in dogs

Depends on a large number of factors such as genetics, environmental influences, and experiences mainly in early puppyhood (5-7 weeks of age – development of sensory homeostasis). A serious problem in a dog’s behaviour is often already evident in young dogs and an obsession of a paroxysmal nature is already evident in the first months of a dog’s life. The owner should carefully observe the dog’s behaviour and if any abnormalities are noticed, assess the extent of the problem. A dog presenting a behaviour may just be seeking our attention, but the problem may be more complex and more deeply rooted in the dog’s psyche. We may also be dealing with a combination of hereditary factors plus the influence of the environment. Remember that sensory stimulation is also crucial, especially in the critical period of a dog’s life (the first 3 months). A responsible owner should know the nature of the breed but also its purpose and the predisposition to carry the gene responsible for the development of CCD and thus ensure that his dog’s life is rich in events and stimuli.


Encouraging your dog to behave inappropriately may be the cause of him developing bad behaviour, which is then picked up by the dog and coded as correct. If we cannot recognise the root of the problem and do not know how to help our dog, it is worth seeking advice from an experienced person who will be able to show us the way to proceed. A dog in the grip of an obsession is very unhappy and constantly feels the need to do certain things, which is extremely exhausting for him. We often decide to get help when we are on the verge of giving up and the dog is in the extreme stage of the disorder. To understand why is to not let it happen! The commitment of the owner and breeders, i.e. selective breeding of pedigree dogs, not only focusing on the exterior but also the temperament and character of the dog, is crucial here. Again, a major part of the success is in our hands.
So let us be aware and responsible for Our dogs!


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