In March 2022, Nature/Scientific Reports published a paper entitled “Aggressiveness, ADHD-Like Behavior, and Environment Affect Repetitive Behavior in Dogs”. Let’s look at what they found, including types of repetitive behaviors in dogs, possible triggers for developing compulsive behaviors, which breeds are more likely to develop repetitive behaviors, and common treatments. I made a video, but you can also read the same information below.
The study used data from approximately 4,500 Finnish pet dogs (aged 2.4 months to 17.9 years). Basically, families filled out an online questionnaire about dog behavior. Of the 4,500 dogs, people reported that:
- 1,315 of these dogs exhibited repetitive behaviors
- 3,121 of these dogs showed NO repetitive behaviors
For context, previous research estimates that 16% of domestic dogs exhibit observable repetitive behavior.
Types of compulsive dog behavior
Researchers categorize the various compulsive behaviors in dogs into 5 types:
- locomotion – Circling, chasing tail, pacing, chasing lights and freezing in place
- Orally – Chewing on legs or feet, licking yourself, so-called “flank sucking”, licking or chewing on objects and gasping for air
- Self-directed aggression – Growling/biting rear end, legs or tail
- vocalization – compulsive rhythmic barking or whining
- hallucinatory behaviorrs – stare into shadows or chase lights
We’ve already talked about chasing lights. It’s *really common in Border Collies.
Possible triggers for repetitive behavior in dogs
Previous research reports that certain experiences can trigger repetitive behaviors in dogs, including:
- age of weaning
- Lack of socialization
- presence of other dogs
- Comorbidity with other behavioral problems
Results of this study
The researchers say, “Several demographic, environmental, and behavioral variables increased the likelihood of repetitive behaviors in dogs.”
- age > “The age of the dog was associated with repetitive behavior.” Higher odds in young dogs and dogs over 8 years of age.
- sex > “Contrary to our a priori hypothesis, there was no significant difference in repetitive behavior between male and female dogs.” Other studies* have found an association with sex, particularly in male Bull Terriers.
sterilization > “There was an association between spaying and repetitive behavior, as intact dogs were less likely to engage in repetitive behavior than neutered dogs.” Other studies have found that females in particular are spayed
with less likelihood of repetitive behaviors.
environmental factors of the dog
- The exercise > “Dogs that got less exercise per day were more likely to engage in repetitive behavior.” Specifically, dogs that got less than 1 hour of exercise per day
- dog only > “As hypothesized, dogs that were just dogs in the family had a higher likelihood of repetitive behavior than dogs that lived with other dogs.”
- 1st dog > “If the dog was the owner’s first dog, it was more likely to exhibit repetitive behavior.” This is a novel finding not found in other research. Replication in future studies would be required to consolidate this result.
- family size > “Dogs living in one-person households were less likely to exhibit repetitive behavior than dogs living in two-person households or in larger families (more than 2 children or more than 2 adults in the family).” This should be even so its validated by additional research.
Breeds most likely to develop repetitive behaviors
- German shepherds
- Chinese crested dogs
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Medium sized laces
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
- Smooth Collie
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Lagotto Romagnolo
- Jack Russel terrier
- Rough Collie
The researchers also found some racial differences in the types of repetitive behaviors that different races develop, such as:
- Higher prevalence of tail hunting in Staffordshire Bull Terriers
- Higher prevalence of stares and gasps in Border Collies
Dogs with higher scores for these other behaviors were more likely to exhibit repetitive behaviors:
- Hyperactivity / Impulsivity
- Aggressiveness – In particular, higher levels of aggressiveness increased the likelihood of repetitive behaviors.
Is it like human OCD?
Some say yes. Some say no, but there are similarities:
- Early age of onset
- Behavioral inflexibility due to impairment in executive function
- Structural abnormalities in the brain
- Elevated level of cholesterol in the blood
- Imbalanced signaling pathways for serotonin and dopamine
Common treatments for repetitive behavior in dogs
Doctors also use similar medications and other treatments for this behavior in humans and dogs, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or clomipramine (Anafranil for humans; Clomicalm for dogs).
Why is that important?
“Because abnormal repetitive behavior can significantly worsen dog welfare and affect the relationship between dog and owner, understanding the factors that influence repetitive behavior in dogs can benefit both dogs and humans.”