Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. A dog who displays compulsive behavior repeatedly performs one or more behaviors over and over, to the extent that it interferes with his normal life. The behavior he's doing doesn't seem to have any purpose, but he's compelled to do it anyway. Some dogs will spend almost all their waking hours engaging in repetitive behaviors. They might lose weight, suffer from exhaustion and even physically injure themselves. Dogs display many different kinds of compulsions, such as spinning, pacing, tail chasing, fly snapping, barking, shadow or light chasing, excessive licking and toy fixation. It's important to note that normal dogs also engage in behaviors like barking and licking, but they usually do so in response to specific triggers.

Some breeds are more likely to develop certain compulsive disorders. For instance, many Doberman pinschers, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers have excessive licking problems (also known as acral lick dermatitis or lick granuloma). Doberman pinschers seem to engage in flank sucking more often than other breeds. Bull terriers repetitively spin more often than other breeds. German shepherd dogs seem vulnerable to tail-chasing compulsions. Sometimes they even bite and chew their tails when they “catch” them, causing hair loss or serious injury.

Compulsive behavior can develop for a number of reasons. Sometimes dogs start compulsive behaviors for no obvious reason at all. Other dogs develop compulsions after having physical conditions that cause them to lick or chew their bodies. For example, if your dog injures his paw and licks it, he might continue his repetitive licking behavior after his injury has completely healed. A dog's lifestyle can sometimes contribute to the development compulsive behavior. For example, repetitive behavior is more likely to develop in dogs whose living conditions cause anxiety or stress. Examples of dogs in situations that can contribute to the development of compulsive disorders include:

  • Dogs who are frequently tied up or confined and forced to live in small areas
  • Dogs who experience social conflict, such as a long separation from a companion or frequent aggression from other dogs in the family
  • Dogs who lack opportunities to engage in normal canine behavior, such as socializing with people and other dogs
  • Dogs who deal with conflicting emotions or motivations (for instance, a dog needs to go into the yard to relieve himself but is afraid to enter the area because of a frightening experience that once took place there)
  • Dogs who are physically abused or punished randomly and unpredictably

Research has shown that although conflict and anxiety in a dog's life can initially trigger a compulsive disorder, the compulsive behavior might continue to happen after the stressful elements in a dog's life have been eliminated.

Common Compulsive Behaviors

  • Spinning Some dog spin in place and aren't easily distracted when doing so.
  • Pacing Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern. Pacing can be in a circle or in a straight line.
  • Tail chasing A dog runs in a tight circle, as if chasing his tail. Tail chasing may include physical damage to the tail or just the motion of chasing it.
  • Fly snapping Some dogs chomp at the air, as if they're trying to catch imaginary flies.
  • Barking Some dogs barks almost nonstop when there is no apparent trigger.
  • Toy fixation Some dogs repeatedly pounce on, push, chew or toss a certain toy or toys in the air. Often the pattern of play is repetitive. This kind of compulsive behavior frequently occurs in a specific room, but a dog might engage in compulsive behavior with specific toys in any room.
  • Shadow or light chasing A dog chases shadows or light.
  • Self-Injurious chewing, licking or scratching Some dogs inflict injury to themselves through frequently chewing, licking or scratching some part of his body over and over. NOTE: Dogs who excessively or compulsively lick or chew themselves must be taken to a veterinarian to rule out physical causes, such as pain and itching.
  • Flank sucking Some dogs suck on the fur or skin on their flanks (the area above the thigh).
  • Licking surfaces or objects Some dogs frequently lick a surface or an object (for example, a spot on the floor or couch) over and over again.
  • Excessive water drinking Some dogs repetitively drink water, even when they're not thirsty.