How to identify and treat common psychological problems in your dog.
Canine compulsive disorder (CCD) is characterised by excessive repetition of an action or behaviour, which can vary depending on the context. Common actions include excessive licking, tail-chasing, chasing shadows or reflections, snapping at flies and flank-sucking.
CCD is similar to the human compulsive disorders – think, for example, of the stereotype of repeated, excessive hand-washing. Just as human compulsive disorders are often an effort to reduce or prevent stress and anxiety, canine compulsive disorder is likely to be a coping mechanism for when the dog perceives a situation as stressful.
Other causes of CCD can include conflict, confinement, boredom, neurotransmitter abnormality and attention seeking. The behaviour may also be learned as a result of endorphin release, or rewarding inappropriate actions.
Depending on the underlying cause, treatment may include alleviating stress, boredom and conflict, structuring a consistent environment and routine interactions with the owner, and treatment with a variety of drugs.
The same anti-anxiety and serotonergic medications used in people have been shown to reduce the frequency of compulsive behaviours in dogs. For lasting results, however, it is best to use these drugs in conjunction with training that encourages the dog to modify its behaviour.
Common symptoms can include excessive vocalisation (such as continuous loud crying, yelping or barking), destructiveness, house soiling, panting/drooling, escaping, pacing and anorexia.
Dogs are social animals and experience stress or anxiety when they feel abandoned by their companion. Typically seen in puppies when they go to their new home, the problem is also prevalent in adult dogs.
Separation anxiety is caused not by the actual separation of the dog from its owner – an inevitable occurrence for most dogs. Rather, it is often the result of a lack of prior habituation to separation or to changes in routine (such as changes to their owner’s work schedule).
It can also be caused by excessive attention and affection given to the dog immediately prior to separation and upon the owner’s return.
Treatment can include reducing the attachment to the owner; eliminating affection and attention pre-departure and upon return; and habituating the dog to pre-departure cues such as picking up the car keys, walking to the door or wearing certain clothes (such as a uniform).
Systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning can also be useful; that is, discouraging the unwanted emotional reaction and teaching a new, desirable emotional response. This involves subjecting the dog to a series of separations that are shorter than the critical time period after which anxiety occurs. The short separations establish a pattern so that future separations produce little emotional response.
When the dog is remaining calm through a series of short separations, counter-conditioning can begin. In this process, the dog is given long-lasting treats such as a pig’s ear, marrow-bone or treats hidden in a puzzle toy when the owner departs. This helps to create a positive association with being left alone.
As long as the dog shows no sign of anxiety, the duration of departures can be gradually increased. Start at one minute, working up to two, five, 10, 15 minutes and so on, with several sessions at each step.
Varied and context specific, symptoms can include shaking, drooling, panting, elimination, loss of appetite, aggression, escaping behaviour and inactivity.
In the wild, fear of strange noises and animals is an evolutionary adaptation because these things could pose a risk of injury or death. For puppies in the home environment, initial fear of novel stimuli is normal. Following repeated exposure to these fear-eliciting stimuli, puppies usually habituate and the fear reactions are reduced or eliminated.
The response of the owner to their dog’s initial fear can cause excessive fear or phobias. Some owners inadvertently reinforce fear behaviour by comforting their dog when it is afraid, for example, during a thunderstorm.
A negative experience with a stimulus can also cause fears and phobias. For example, a dog accidentally shot by a gun may continually associate the gunshot sound with the pain of the injury. Dogs can also develop excessive fear of people, dogs, new experiences and inanimate objects.
Treatment programs must be designed on a case-by-case basis because the fear-eliciting stimuli and responses of individual dogs vary greatly. Again, most successful programs usually involve desensitisation and counter-conditioning.
A technique sometimes used, ‘flooding’, involves exposing a dog to the fear-evoking stimulus at full intensity for a prolonged period of time.
Under some circumstances, and generally for puppies, flooding results in habituation of the fear reaction. In adult dogs or those with a severe emotional reaction, flooding can exacerbate the fear response. For this reason, desensitisation and counter-conditioning is a more successful and humane treatment.
In severe cases of fear of loud noises (such as thunderstorm phobia), the use of anxiolytic drugs to support a program of behaviour modification may be necessary. When it is evident that desensitisation is occurring, the dosage can be gradually reduced and eventually discontinued.
By Kate Mornement, animal behaviourist and owner of Pets Behaving Badly.