Modifying the compulsive disorder syndrome in dogs

Perhaps the difficulty begins with the label: Should the behavior be called stereotypical, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or just compulsive disorder?

Do the terms refer to the same thing? From one point of view, yes.

A stereotype is a repetitive pattern of behavior that serves no obvious purpose in the context in which it is performed.

What about obsessive-compulsive behavior? Some animal behaviorists have objected to the use of the word obsessive since no one can know if an animal can show this human trait.

So as Dr. Caroline J. Hewson and Dr. U. A. Luescher of the University of Guelph in Canada would have it, the syndrome of repetitive, purposeless behavior seen in dogs should best be termed simply compulsive disorder. Except that the behavior may indeed have some purpose.

The two behaviorists believe that compulsive behavior may begin as a normal response to a situation of conflict or frustration, but then the conflict behavior is freed from the original situation or context.

The compulsive behavior may then be performed in other situations if arousal is provoked beyond a certain threshold. A simple example: if a dog has no opportunity for exercise and no social contact, it may indulge in compulsive—that is, repetitive and apparently purposeless—circling.

There may also be changes in the animal's central nervous system operating at the same time to keep the animal behavior in the same stereotypical manner. Moreover, the owner may respond to the behavior in such a way that the behavior is unintentionally reinforced.

These experts say there are no solid figures on how prevalent compulsive disorders are, although at their hospital about 6 percent of canine behavior problems are of this nature. The more usually quoted figure is about 2 percent, which leads them to suspect that compulsive disorders are unrecognized or mis-diagnosed.

There appears to be a breed predisposition to conflict or compulsive behaviors. Large breeds— Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Golden and Labrador Retrievers, for instance—show compulsive behavior by licking persistently at one area of the body, creating a skin lesion called lick granu-loma.

English Bull Terriers whirl around and then freeze in one position. German Shepherds are known to chase their tails, and Dobermans are notorious flank suckers. Compulsive behaviors can be seen in other breeds, of course, and there is some evidence of neurological involvement in some of these behaviors, which is why a neurologic examination is part of the general physical examination of any dog with a compulsive behavior pattern.

Although various drugs have been used to control compulsive behavior, there is no generally approved treatment. Drs. Hewson and Luescher report that the treatment they have developed has been used with success in their own practice. Given the assumption that the behavior stems from conflict (a normal, adaptive response is thwarted and then becomes stereotyped), removing the sources of conflict should help. The sources might be:

• Physical restraints such as close confinement and chaining.
• Social conflicts that arise from competition for status, changes in social group, or separation.
• Unpredictable or uncontrollable environment.
• A lack of target object for normal behavior.For example, a dog kept isolated has no normal outlet for its instinct to interact within a group, animal or human.

The experts say that it is possible to desensitize the dog to whatever stimuli incited the compulsive behavior. First of all, the owner must be rigorously consistent in his reaction to the dog, because inconsistent signals may in themselves be a source of conflict. In the first two to four weeks of training, the interaction is strictly limited to daily exercise and daily reward-based training, another opportunity to interact in a consistent and predictable manner.

Punishment is ruled out in this program, as is the use of choke collars. Drug therapy may be initiated early in the program, but it should not be the sole therapy, and the dog should be weaned from the drug as soon as feasible. The owner should be advised that if a breed predisposition exists, behavioral management may be long-term or even lifelong.