Tail chasers and paw lickers: how owners play a role in their dog's repetitive behaviour.

Have you ever seen your dog acting weird? Does your dog chase his tail or circle around several times a day? Or does she growl at herself? Maybe she even bites her own hind legs or tail? 

 

Last week, a new study was published in Scientific Reports by Sulkana et al., in which 4500 Finnish dog owners were asked about their dog’s repetitive behaviours. About 30% of these owners had dogs showing abnormal repetitive behaviours. 

 

The study found that repetitive behaviours were more common among dogs belonging to first-time owners, dogs that exercised less than one hour per day and dogs that lived with larger families. From these data, it seems that the owner plays a large role in dog behavioural problems. 

 

Photo by Victor Grabarczyk on Unsplash

 

 

What do repetitive behaviours look like? 

 

There are several different types of repetitive behaviours:


  • Locomotory repetitive behaviours: These include pacing constantly up and down the room, chasing the dog’s own tail, circling, chasing light reflections, and freezing.


  • Oral repetitive behaviours: Chewing or licking on its own leg or foot (mouthing), flank sucking, chewing or licking of objects, and snapping in the air (fly snapping).


  • Aggressive repetitive behaviours: Self-directed aggression, such as the dog growling or biting its own rear end, rear legs, or tail.


  • Vocalisation repetitive behaviours. This includes compulsive rhythmic barking or whining, or barking at shadows.


  • Hallucinatory behaviours: A dog that stares at shadows, chases shadows or light reflections.


Sometimes dogs can show a combination of these, for example, when a dog chases its tail and growls

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    Repetitive behaviour typically already starts in puppyhood, before the age of one year. And many owners report that the repetitive behaviours become worse when the dog gets older, and can severely impact quality of life and damage the bond between the dog and owner. 

     

    Why do dogs show these abnormal repetitive behaviours? 

    Repetitive behaviours are not seen in wild animals living in their natural environments, but only in wild and domesticated captive animals. This makes me think that it is something in the way we keep our animals that drives these abnormal behaviours. 

     

    Dogs are not the only species that show repetitive behaviours. Other examples of repetitive behaviour patterns in animals include feather picking in parrots, pacing in zoo-housed polar bears, tigers, and lions, and crib-biting in horses. You’ve probably seen the famous videos of the polar-bear that walks up and down its enclosure all day long. We don’t know exactly why animals engage in repetitive behaviours, but one of the explanations is that:

    Animals perform abnormal repetitive behaviours because it feels good in that moment, and helps them to cope with a stressful environment.  

    What is the definition of repetitive behaviours

    Repetitive behaviours are also called stereotypies, which are defined as repetitive, invariant behaviour patterns with no obvious goal or function. Some people have suggested, though, that some repetitive behaviours do serve a function, but that the way they are expressed is excessive, exceedingly intense or performed out of context. Therefore, in the Finnish study they only used the term ‘repetitive behaviours’ rather than stereotypical behaviour because it is very difficult to say whether a specific repetitive behaviour serves a function or not. 

    If you see your dog (or parrot, horse, cat, etc) engage in repetitive behaviours, it is a big red flag that your dog is not coping and you will need to do something about it

    Personality traits and repetitive behaviour

    So what exactly did they find in the Finnish study by Sulkana et al.? First of all, they confirmed previous research that links repetitive behaviours to hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive and aggressive behaviours. This means that dogs showing repetitive behaviours are also more likely to be hyperactivity, impulsive, inattentive and aggressive. 

    OCD and repetitive behaviour

    The authors even suggest that repetitive behaviours in dogs may be similar to human obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is called canine compulsive disorder and the symptoms of obsessive and compulsive dog behaviour appear similar to human OCD. But I think we should be a little careful when translating human disorders to dogs. Even though they may appear similar on the surface, we know very little about why dogs express these repetitive behaviours and whether these are truly ‘disorders’. Other than, of course, that repetitive behaviours are perceived as problematic by the owners and lead to poor welfare in the animal performing it. But rather than labelling repetitive behaviours as disorders, in my opinion:

    Problematic behaviours stem from a lack of knowledge about how to meet the dogs’ emotional and physical needs, rather than from a specific brain dysfunction. 
     
    The problem is that once we give some sort of medical label or diagnosis to an abnormal behaviour, there is a risk that we accept that our dogs have a ‘disorder’ and that there is nothing we can do about it. But I believe that 

    Many behavioural problems can be reduced or even prevented if we understood what our animals truly needed, and how to provide that for them. Even if it is not convenient for us!
     
    Owner characteristics and repetitive behaviour

    Repetitive behaviours were also linked to a lack of exercise. Dogs need lots of exercise, and a lack of exercise is a well-known risk factor for problem behaviours.

    Also, dogs belonging to a first-time dog owner showed higher repetitive behaviours. Presumably, first time dog owners have little knowledge about dog behaviour, and may find it more difficult to meet their dogs emotional and physical needs. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that the data from the Finnish study is only correlational, and does not say anything about causality. So the fact that new dog owners were more likely to have dogs that showed repetitive behaviours, does not mean that new dog owners caused these behaviours. 

     

    Dogs that were kept together with other dogs showed less repetitive behaviours, probably because they were in a social group and could play and explore together. Also, dogs in single person households showed less repetitive behaviours, presumably because single people spent more time interacting with their dogs, and so provided more stimulation. Again, this suggests that repetitive behaviours stem from boredom and a lack of stimulation rather than a specific brain dysfunction. 

    Spending quality time together and providing lots of mental enrichment will help to prevent abnormal behaviours.

    Breed differences and repetitive behaviour

    Repetitive behaviour was most often reported in German Shepherd Dogs, which also agrees with previous findings. Breed differences may stem from selective breeding for desired characteristics and functional purposes, and so certain behaviours may become more common and dominant in some breeds, but not others. This information may be important when deciding on a particular dog breed. But, as a note of caution, these results are based on the breeds that were available for this specific study cohort, and may neither be representative of the general dog population nor of the specific dog breed.

    Also important to know when interpreting this study, is that the data was based on owner reports, which are not always reliable. Some owners may not notice that their dog displays problematic behaviours, while others may interpret normal dog behaviour as problematic. 

    Nevertheless, this study is a good starting point to identify possible environmental, behavioural and demographic relationships with repetitive behaviours that can then be studied in more detail in future research. 

    How to prevent repetitive behaviours 

    Even though, as said before, the data is only correlational, it gives some hints on how to prevent repetitive behaviours. So what can you do to help your neurotic dog?

    • Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise

       

    • If you’re a new dog owner, make sure you educate yourself about dog behaviour (you’re doing a good job already, cause you’re reading this :))

       

    • Spend lots of quality time together

       

    • Let your dog play with other familiar and friendly dogs

       

    • Provide sufficient mental stimulation

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    References: 

    Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 finnish pet dogs.

    Stereotypies: A critical review.




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