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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

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This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Obsessive-compulsive disorders and Stereotypes

Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD's) are no more clearly understood in animals than they are in human beings. OCD’s are believed to be associated with neuroanatomical changes which do not allow the animal to respond normally to certain stimuli. Some breeds of dogs such as Labrador retrievers, Doberman pinschers, Weimaraners, Shar-Pei, and Dalmatians seem to have obsessive licking problems (Acral lick granuloma/dermatitis) more than others.

Stereotypies are considered to be socially based; i.e. they are based on the animal feeling frustrated by the inability to do something they want to do. Stereotypies are seen in all types of animals such as pacing of zoo animals in cages and horses that weave in their stables. The zoo animal wants to be out hunting but can only pace up and down in their cage. Horses want to run and graze but are frustrated by the confines of their caged environment. But some types of stereotypical behaviour appear to be far more compulsive than others and are now being considered as possibly pathologically based behaviour.

More Bull terriers and German Shepherd dogs are seen with tail-chasing problems than any other breed. Although tail-chasing can have a developmental element to it; i.e. it gets the dog attention which it finds rewarding, and pain related tail chasing due to problems such as anal glands, hip dysplasia or pain in the neck or spine must be ruled out, the problem can be complicated. Some of these tail-chasers seem unable to stop the behaviour to the point of mutilation of the tail. Pharmacological help is now available which can facilitate the behaviour therapy, although most of these dogs will need to remain on a maintenance dosage of the drug for life.

Useful treatment for phobias, stereotypies and obsessive compulsive disorders, along with the pharmacological intervention, is teaching the dog a structure of behaviour that will guarantee relaxation or stress reduction and will provide an appropriate response to anxiety. This can be as simple as having the dog always come to your side for a reward. The reward depends on the individual and what he likes the best. For some dogs it is a titbit, or a special toy, or just the owners positive attention. This therapy has the added benefit of distracting the dog from the unwanted behaviour into something more socially acceptable; i.e. laying by the owners feet and chewing on a food filled Kong toy. The key to this therapy is that the dog learns that he can always relax when by his owners side and his relaxed posture is rewarded (Kong toy, praise, titbits).

“Flooding” is rarely useful or acceptable in animal behaviour therapy. Flooding is the deliberate exposure of the dog to whatever he fears for as long as it takes for him to de-sensitise and no longer have a fearful response. This is a very risky practice with dogs (and can be with people, unless done professionally) and can make the dog even more fearful than ever. It is also questionable on welfare grounds as, unlike a human being, it is difficult to know how much anxiety the dog is feeling.

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