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Canine Compulsions

Clinician's Brief (Capsule)


|May 2015

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Canine compulsive disorder (CCD) is characterized by behaviors such as licking, flank-sucking, tail-chasing, and light-chasing that occur repetitively and without clear purpose. Environmental factors may play a role. For example, owners may unintentionally reinforce tail-chasing by laughing at or scolding the dog. Compulsive licking or circling might be brought on by boredom or confinement. An understanding of these contributing and exacerbating environmental factors may assist in the development of improved therapies.

The diagnosis of compulsive disorder is made when a behavior is performed out of context and interferes with the patient’s ability to live a normal life.

The diagnosis of compulsive disorder is made when a behavior is performed out of context and interferes with the patient’s ability to live a normal life.This 3-part study used functional analysis to evaluate the role of antecedents and reinforcers in CCD. Study 1 was an exploratory phase in which owners (n = 99) completed an online survey about their dogs’ stereotypic behaviors, including triggers and consequences. Statistical analysis did not reveal consistent trends. Study 2 was a prospective case study of 5 dogs from Study 1. These dogs exhibited light-chasing, circling, or licking. Analysis showed that light-chasing in 2 dogs was independent of social consequences whereas circling and licking in 3 dogs was reinforced by owner attention. Study 3 showed that manipulating reinforcers in 3 dogs reduced these unwanted behaviors. The authors concluded that functional analysis methodology is useful in individual CCD cases and that unwanted compulsive behaviors can be decreased by manipulation of environmental/owner variables. The ability to identify specific reinforcers in individual owner-dog pairs allows for tailored therapy.


As this article suggests, many factors can contribute to the development and maintenance of repetitive behaviors. The authors remind us that it is important to identify controllable reinforcers and that behavioral and environmental modification are critical to treatment. Stereotypic behavior can have many causes and may reflect inadequate enrichment, inadvertent owner reinforcement, or attention-seeking. The diagnosis of compulsive disorder is made when the behavior is performed out of context and interferes with the animal’s ability to live a normal life. In moderately severe clinical cases, the behavior cannot be interrupted. Therefore, initially, it may not be possible to manipulate reinforcers. Underlying medical and behavioral conditions, whether comorbid or causative, need to be addressed for long-term control and patient welfare.—Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB


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