Loosely defined, obsessive compulsive behaviors are considered manifestations of impaired impulse control, usually triggered as a response to something undesirable. In dogs, these behaviors include excessive pacing, spinning, barking, whining, and licking. The stress may be caused by separation, fear, excitement, or insecurity. Unfortunately, the obsessive behaviors cause physiological changes that aggravate, rather than relieve, the stress. The obsessive behavior results in a decrease in the dog’s production of serotonin (a hormone vital to impulse control) and an increase in the production of cortisol, which is also called the “stress hormone.”
All dogs produce some cortisol all the time, as it functions in regulating energy and glucose levels. However, during a period of excitement or stress, a dog’s cortisol production spikes. Research indicates that high levels of cortisol correlate to increased aggression and OCD behaviors. Consequently, allowing the behaviors to continue creates a vicious cycle that makes the anxiety worse and triggers more undesirable behavior. The longer your dog engages in the behavior, the harder it will be to change. These behaviors must be addressed as soon as they are observed and at as young an age as possible.
It is important to remember that these behaviors are not willful disobedience. Correcting them requires a combination of training, structure, and environment.
Teach an Alternative Behavior
Your dog’s behavior is an attempt to deal with a stress trigger. Unfortunately, your dog’s choice of behavior is likely to be unmanageable, destructive, or dangerous. Providing alternative behaviors through obedience training gives your dog a way to deal with the stress, and also provides a sense of predictability and security that will help alleviate the stress.
For example, teaching your dog to go to place for a stay or a down/stay is a safe and secure behavior that can be used for a range of stressful situations. The down in place is an inherently calming command. Being in a down immediately takes your dog out of the action. So, if your dog barks or spins when people come to the door, teaching him to go to place and down
- puts space between him and the stressor
- gives him something else to concentrate on
- reassures him that you are aware of the situation.
Giving him the place command tells him “I’ve got this. You don’t need to handle it.”
If your dog barks or lunges at every critter or passerby on a walk, teach an alternative behavior that reassures him you are aware and that he has a different job to do than alert you to the squirrel across the street. You can teach your dog the look command and reward him for giving his attention to you rather than the trigger. For dogs that are too over stimulated for the look command, the down stay can be used here as well for an alternative behavior.
Practice Daily; Build Gradually
Your dog will not immediately find the alternative behavior to be a stress reliever. You may be tempted to give up when you see your dog struggling to maintain the down stay. However, practice and consistency will teach your dog that the alternative behavior is expected and that the command is predictable. And consistency and predictability are huge stress relievers. Start with short increments and easy wins. Don’t expect your dog to hold a ten-minute down stay the first time you send him to place when you answer the door. Practice daily and be firm, calm, and consistent in giving and expecting obedience to the place command. Start with short stays and work up to longer time periods.
If you are addressing separation anxiety, build up gradually. First, give your dog a down stay command in his crate or kennel, but stay in view. Work your way up to going out of sight briefly. Then, leave the house for a few minutes and return. Dealing with separation anxiety is a topic in itself, but providing an alternative behavior to whining, scratching, or barking due to separation anxiety is a huge part of preventing the cycle of behavior that increases cortisol and stress.
Consider All the Factors
Barking, chewing, and even spinning are all natural behaviors that dogs use to respond to their environments. However, when these behaviors become repetitive, destructive, or excessive, then they are not natural, they are obsessive responses to stress. When you give your dog a command, you give him a job—something to focus on other than his stress. His job is to obey the command. He will learn that managing the source of the stress is your job: You will talk to the people at the door; you will make sure the dog across the street doesn’t get into your house. He does not have to worry about those things.
In addition, however, you have another job:
- Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation.
- Provide a predictable environment.
- Where possible, minimize exposure to triggers when you are not around. For example, if your dog barks at people passing the house, limit his visibility when you are not at home.
- Be consistent. Expect obedience every time you give a command for the alternative behavior. If you give in and soothe your dog, you are only reinforcing the idea that he has a reason to be stressed.
Providing this foundation will help your dog be less reactive to stress triggers. Then, when you give a command for an alternative behavior, your dog will come to trust that your command is the best choice. Over time, your dog will come to associate the new, better behavior with the trigger. Eventually, you may not even need to give the command. His stress, his behavior, and your lives together, will improve.