Some breeds (highly intelligent, sensitive and driven dogs) can have a genetic predisposition for these behaviours, which can start either as a way of alleviating frustration and/or as a coping mechanism for conflict or stress.
With each stressful event that your dog encounters, there is a release of neurotransmitters involved with the stress response. When a dog is frustrated or stressed, he may start to perform a normal behaviour such as chasing and controlling something that moves. If chasing and controlling the fly/shadow/light reduces the neurotransmitters involved with the stressful event, the dog is likely to perform that behaviour again when he is stressed.
For some dogs, this behaviour becomes ritualised and repetitive because of the intense reward that is associated —reduction of the physiologic feeling of stress or frustration and the release of Oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ chemical in their brains.
Over time, compulsive behaviours progress and get worse. Dogs often start to perform the compulsive behaviour with any stressful event, not just the original inciting situation. The behaviour can take over the dog’s life replacing normal sleep and feeding habits.
Some common examples of compulsive behaviour:
Fly and Imaginary Fly Chasing
Tail Chasing or spinning
Self-harm including excessive licking, particularly on the flank or legs/feet
It is important to state that in order to diagnose a compulsive behaviour, all underlying medical issues must be dismissed first.
Minimising Compulsive Behaviours
It's important with dogs with inherent high drive (which are not working or with limited job options) to keep them mentally and physically stimulated every day. Minimising the opportunity to rehearse these behaviours is critical.
It's advisable to:
- make a diary of any times they demonstrate the behaviour
- identify whether your dog only does it with you present in the room or does it without you present (set up a video camera so you can observe in your absence)
Become More Aware Of Your Own Behavioural Responses
Reprimanding a dog, even verbally, will only exacerbate the situation as we know that any stress is a major contributor to these behaviours. It is important you focus on giving him alternative options and redirect him from any unwanted behaviours. You can reduce his stress and anxiety by lure chasing, mental training games and a making him work for his food more though puzzle solving exercises.
Common treatments are briefly listed here and include
- providing a predictable daily routine,
- providing a reward-based training approach that shapes desirable responses and avoids the use of punishment,
- avoiding the use of rewards except when desirable behaviours are exhibited so that the pet learns what behaviours predictably earn rewards
- providing a few regularly scheduled social interaction sessions (including social play, exercise and training)
- between social interaction sessions, providing a settle down area for rest and relaxation that contains stimulating objects and toys that use food and textures to maintain interest.
- Use calming herbal oils on their body/bed/you/your car/your work/around the home to link a relaxed positive smell to all areas.
- holistic calming remedies that can go in their water or food on a daily basis
- an Adaptil collar or plug in that releases a calming pheromone
- talk to a veterinary behaviourist who can prescribe specific medicinal options in conjunction with a behavioural program once they've done an assessment.
Well in my book it’s not good for their mental wellbeing to have this sort of ‘addiction’ as it generally does not involve anyone else. Unchecked and the behaviour can evolve very quickly and become a complete fixation where nothing else exists in their daily world. This can be dangerous and can lead to further complications and behaviours, including aggressive outbursts developing, not to mention a lack of control of the dog.
We have worked with many cases of dogs where the owners have a compete lack of understanding of their breed type, their dogs individual needs and the stress they may be under. Some were responsible for starting the behaviour in the first place because they thought it was amusing to watch their dog chase a light bouncing off their watch, with little comprehension that it is a potentially dangerous thing to start. With these sorts of cases it not always possible to remove the compulsion but simply minimise it, to a point where the dog still has a connection with the world around it.
If you have seen any repetitive behaviours in your dog, no matter how young, that you are concerned about may not be normal or healthy then please consult a behaviourist.