Compulsive Behaviour. ‘Stress Bucket’ Overflows.

Rottweiler Amber has a lovely temperament, friendly and confident. They have obviously come a long way with her compulsive shadow-chasing etc. in the two years since they adopted her at six months old. She was already doing it then. Her problems probably are due to a mix of genetics and what her life was before she came to live with them.

Unless all is still and quiet, Amber doesn’t settle.

The smallest thing prompts a compulsive sequence of chasing shadows, digging the floor or licking the carpet. She won’t leave their other dog alone.

Outside on walks she chases shadows – particularly those caused by people; she runs back and forth from the sun then digs and pants.

It’s distressing to see her become so frenzied with so little provocation.

Rottie with compulsive behaviourApart from this compulsive behaviour, Amber is a dream dog. A friendly, gentle Rottie that is good with other dogs and people. No trouble. She lives with people who give her plenty of time, training and enrichment.

From her constant patrolling and panting, it’s obvious that her internal stress levels are so high that frequently she simply can’t cope. Her ‘stress bucket‘ is ready to  overflow.

Stress accumulates and can last in the system for days, and dogs like Amber live in a constant ‘ready for action’ state.

It then erupts into certain patterns of compulsive behaviour that must give her relief in some way.

When she frantically digs, licks the floor or chases shadows etc, she completely focusses on something that is shutting out real life.

In a weird way it may give her some control.

The smallest thing starts her off. Over time these rituals become a habit – learned behaviour.

They have been using distraction, commands, gentle massage, food and so on. This attempts to deal with the situations as they happen, without getting to the root cause of the compulsive behaviour.

Shutting her in her crate is the only way to give both Amber and her humans a break at times. Interestingly, after a quiet night in her crate with hours to de-stress, she starts the day calm.

We will start by concentrating on one thing only – bringing down her arousal levels. Taking away as much pressure as possible. ‘Operation Calm’. They should make stress-reduction a priority.

Let’s then see what happens and reassess.

When I was there we found that a ball made a great pacifier. With a ball in her mouth she is a lot better, although she then persistently uses it to ‘tease’ by nudging with it without letting the person have it.

We also captured calm moments with clicker and food (until she stole my clicker!).

Over the next few days I have asked them to spot areas they might be able do something about, with a calmer Amber being their end aim.

They will look out for any things that stir her up (looking for lip-licking, panting, drooling etc.) and see if there is any way they can change them (there may not be).

Every little helps – every small piece of the jigsaw.

I’ve listed some of the things in Amber’s life I thought of that possibly cause elements of stress/arousal, even if at the same time she likes some of them. Can they think of any more?

  • People coming into the house.
  • Being shut in her crate when there is action outside it – she licks the crate and drools.
  • Hydrotherapy (she would probably prefer to swim free)
  • Being left in the van with the other dog while the man is at work. (Would left crated at home be less stressful?)
  • Riding in the car
  • Traffic
  • Walks. Would more comfortable walking equipment help?
  • The sight of cattle or horses
  • Something coming through the door (put up an outside letterbox?).
  • Very high value items like bones
  • Dog sports

If four weeks of effort doesn’t bring significant results, I believe it’s time to get medical help. Any human in this state wouldn’t be expected to cope without meds.

Increase in compulsive behaviours.

It’s distressing how many dogs I go to nowadays with repetitive, obsessive compulsive behaviours, dogs with owners who do all they can for them. Are dogs being bred for temperament suited to modern life? Is this getting worse or is it just me?

I quote Pat Miller: ‘One would expect that the rise of force-free training methods and the increased awareness of and respect for dogs as sentient creatures would make life easier for them. We should expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of calm, stable, well-adjusted dogs who are happily integrated into lifelong loving homes. But many training and behavior professionals note with alarm the large number of dogs in today’s world who seem to have significant issues with stress and anxiety, with high levels of arousal and low impulse control.

It’s quite possible this is a function of societal change. There was a time not so very long ago when life was pretty casual for our family dogs. They ran loose in the neighborhood day and night; ate, slept, played, and eliminated when they chose; and many had jobs that fulfilled their genetic impulses to herd some sheep or cows, or retrieve game felled by a hunter’s gun.

In contrast, life today is strictly regimented for many of our canine companions…..Owner expectations and demands are high. Dogs are told what to do from the moment they are allowed to get up in the morning until they are put to bed at night…..They have virtually no control over what happens in their world….’

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Amber because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do much more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page).

 

Border Collie Being a Border Collie

Border Collie Holly has several of the more difficult traits in Collies without work that I go to, bearing in mind that I only go to dogs that need help in some way.  This won’t represent the majority of their breed out there.

A Border Collie, being a Border Collie, is bred to herd sheep isn’t she.

Border Collie wants her ball

Where is my ball?

If she has no sheep to herd then Holly may find other things to round up – people, animals or objects.

Four-year-old Holly goes into herding mode when her stress levels tip over and this is mostly when the gentleman comes home from work or when she is even more aroused than usual.

She will then immediately begin to circle and nip the heels of the older lady in particular. She may also pick on this lady when they are all sitting down eating. Holly will, in effect, be making sure her sheep stays put! The dog puts her head on the lady’s lap but not to be touched. If the lady moves she will growl, show her teeth and snarl.

The lady is scared. Holly will know this.

Someone else will sternly command her ‘AWAY!’ which resolves the situation in the present but doesn’t prevent it from happening the next time.

It’s only a matter of time before she bites unless things are done differently.

A Border Collie, being a Border Collie, is bred to focus.

Hollie is bred to focus on and to control sheep. She is also bred to follow a human’s subtle directions.

So many Border Collies who are family pets have no substitute activity for their brains. They so very easily become obsessed with something of their own making.

I have been to many a Border Collie that fills this vacuum by obsessing over shadows, lights or reflections. One dog would stand all day simply looking at a wall, waiting for a flicker.

Holly’s obsession, like that of many another Border Collie, is her ball, or failing that, any throw-able toy. With this ball she constantly and persistently demands the attention of her humans. They must throw it over and over. She never has enough.

If her four humans don’t comply immediately, Holly barks. She has learnt that they have a breaking point and if she persists for long enough they will feel forced to give in.

My advice is to put all the balls and toys away in the garage.

Everyone, including Holly, will need to go cold turkey. They will have to put up with the barking until she realises it no longer works.

The constant throwing is like winding a large key in the side of a clockwork toy. The more you wind the faster it goes – until it’s over-wound and something snaps.

Perpetual activity – and their are four family members at her beck and call most of the day with the ball play – means also that she is sleep-deprived too which won’t be helping.

Just ceasing throwing the ball for Holly isn’t nearly enough. It needs to be replaced with other things – activities that will stimulate a Border Collie’s clever brain whilst also teaching her to be able to settle.

Holly is walked three times a day which sounds great but isn’t.

She is very scared of traffic.

She used to do another Border Collie thing – try to chase the wheels, but now she will hang back, cower away and have to be dragged and enticed for the five minute walk beside a busy road, necessary to get to the park.

The whole walk thing is an ordeal for her three times a day; each time she tries to avoid having her lead put on.

A Border Collie is the dog of choice for many trainers because it’s so clever and so receptive to training. It relishes the challenge, the directions and the brain work which compensates for the lack of sheep to work with.

As family pets, many are simply frustrated. Holly, I know, would far prefer to be working than to be cuddled.

She was so quick learn an alternative behaviour to all the barking at the toy cupboard where the balls had been put away. I taught her to settle on a towel, quietly and kindly. With the smallest gesture she understood what was being asked of her. Being quietly on that towel was a rewarding place to be.

There will be a lot more emphasis on reinforcing all the wanted behaviours and finding ways of giving her better things to do instead of scolding her.

Peaceful at last, on her new 'mat'.

Peaceful at last, on her new ‘mat’.

Being able to send her to her mat for a reward and with something to do at those tricky moments will solve the herding problem when the man comes home. They will get a gate for the sake of safety and all welcomes will be low-key now.

Holly is sure to revolt but they must persist.

Currently Holly’s walks are doing her more harm than good.

Exercise isn’t always the cure-all people think it is – read this. They will for now pop her in the car to get to the park whilst working on hear fear of vehicles. I suggest they take a chair and sit in the pathway beside their house, well away from the road. Holly can be on a long loose lead so if a vehicle is too noisy she can run away. Each vehicle she looks at can be associated with something nice. Food.

Over time she will be sufficiently confident to get nearer to the passing vehicles.

Another common Border Collie trait that I have found (not only Border Collies of course) is a particular sensitivity to bangs. One explosion of a bird-scarer sets up a lifelong sensitivity. Poor Holly now even retreats at the sound of a click, a door shutting, a child bouncing a ball and so on. Fireworks are a nightmare.

I did notice however that after she had been calm and settled on her mat for a while I repeated a click that had sent her running behind the sofa earlier, from a distance, throwing her food at the same time. She ate it and she held her ground.

This is yet more proof that a generally calmer dog can cope a lot better with the things life throws at her.

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Holly and I’ve not gone into exact precise details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

 

Chasing Shadows and Lights

Bichon Frise looking for shadows

Looking at the wall for shadows

It’s really strange how it all started.  They have had the little Bichon Frise for just a few weeks – he came over from Ireland with an unknown past – and the young lady quite unwittingly bought him a laser light thinking that he would enjoy chasing it.

Just a few minutes triggered something in the adorable and affectionate Buddy that has been unstoppable since.

The slightest shadow or reflection starts him off, as even do flying birds. On a walk recently some swallows swooping about overhead had him leaping about and barking frantically.

The behaviour seems to be triggered by stress and excitement as well as any actual shadow or light. When I was there, someone coming back into the room was enough to start him off again. If there is no shadow to see, the young dog will look for it.

It follows a three-stage sequence which starts with Buddy prowling about, his eyes up at the walls. Next he becomes more agitated, to the extent that by now he is deaf to any calling or distractions. Finally he erupts into a wild fit of barking, charging about from room to room and now it’s hard to catch him.

They have tried everything they can think of including putting him in another room which seems to settle him.

This is particularly hard to deal with, mainly because with most behaviours that we want to eliminate we arrange the environment so the dog has less opportunity to rehearse them. In this case the shadows may not actually exist in order for him to start fixating.

It was evident early in our meeting, by listening to the lovely family and watching the little dog, that he spends much of his life far too aroused. They feel that he was probably neglected in the past and bless them they are doing all they can to compensate for this now. They feel guilty when they leave him alone so make a big issue of their comings and goings. He has more or less constant attention. He may have four walks a day, one possibly for as long as an hour and a half.

When he gets home from walks he can be in a hyper state which tells me that the walk hasn’t really done what it’s meant to do. Over-exercise and stimulation is possibly little better than too little.

They have had him for three months now and want to make his life as fun as possible, so, like many people, they stir their dog up intentionally in the belief that exciting him is the way to make him happy.

I suspect that everything is simply too much. Probably the contrast with his former life is also simply too much also.

Our approach is to tone down everything. Lower, softer voices, gentler petting, no deliberately exciting him before going out, short and calmer walks where he can do a lot of sniffing.

Play should be careful. At present it’s far too exciting. He grabs something and ‘loves to be chased about’. Toys and balls are thrown for him to run after which can simply be fuelling his fixation with moving things. We looked at calm games that will exercise his mind like hunting and foraging.

We did some gentle clicker training, the aim being to get him to touch a hand – a way of calling him away from shadows before he gets stuck in. Using a clicker, we also marked and rewarded him each time he chose to take a break from looking about, before he got too carried away. There may be other things he can be taught to do that are incompatible with chasing shadows – like settling somewhere or looking away at something else instead.

The environment needs to be made as helpful as possible. If doors are shut he can do less charging about when he’s in a frenzy. If he’s less stimulated by letters coming through the door and so on, there will be fewer triggers.

Finally they need to step in a lot sooner than they have when taking him out of the situation to calm down. The ‘quiet room’ is a room where he’s happy to be alone – a spare bedroom. It can be dark, with soft music especially produced for calming dogs.

It’s sad when everything has been done to give him a great life by his new family that it’s backfired on them so badly. Over-exciting him hadn’t occurred to them as part of the problem.

It’s very possible that the laser light merely woke a latent behaviour in him that he had done in his previous life. We will never know. I am convinced the key is to get him calmer and more relaxed on all counts which means that his humans must be calmer and quieter around him too.

Each shadow-chasing dog does it his own way, so I don’t go into complete detail here as to our approach. Anyone with a dog who fixates needs professional help. A clicker isn’t a magic tool, it’s just a bit of plastic. It’s worse than useless unless used properly.

It would be a good idea if these laser lights sold in pet shops for cats, came with a written health warning.

Chases Shadows and Reflections

Blue road Cocker Spaniel sitting for his photoBlue chases shadows and reflections. If a large bird flies over it’s not the bird he’s interested in but the shadow it casts. It is the same with cars when they are out on a sunny day. In fact, sunny days can be a bit of a nightmare because there are shadows and reflections everywhere.

The couple already have put an awning over their kitchen window and fitted a new blind to keep Blue as chase-free as possible indoors, but outside, particularly when he’s already a bit excited at the prospect of a walk, he is fixating as soon as he’s out of the door.

When away from shadows Blue appears almost unnaturally calm for an eleven month old working Cocker Spaniel. He is biddable, very friendly, there is gentle jumping up but he settles easily. He appears in to be relaxed.

There are some strange inconsistencies in his behaviour. Blue never barks. He doesn’t react when mail comes through the door and he doesn’t bark when someone knocks. You would expect a dog who is so reactive to everything he sees, especially things that move, to be reactive to sounds also. I observed that he only really responded if the sound was loud – the lady laughed which made him excited and the man blew a whistle which brought Blue running to him.

Blue Roan Cocker lying on his tummyIs this because he is naturally placid and calm indoors and away from shadows, or is it because sounds are muffled to his ears. Dogs that don’t hear naturally compensate with their vision and visa versa just as we do. I suggested it would be a good idea to get his hearing checked at the vet to see if he has any degree of deafness. It could explain the total lack of barking too – a very non-Cocker thing!

Until a couple of months ago when the couple adopted him, Blue lived in a flat in London. The young lady worked all day so he may well have spent hours alone. It is just possible – and this is guesswork – that being in a flat it was important that he should not bark and maybe he was fitted with some sort of punishing anti-bark collar. A very intelligent young working dog with a high prey/chase drive, left alone all day, deprived of expressing himself vocally, could well resort to focussing on anything that moves. There could well now be an element of learned behaviour to his obsessing – a habit. In no other way does he act like a ‘disturbed’ dog.

I watched when Blue was let out of the house into the garden. He came alive. He tore around sometimes chasing anything moving but generally letting off steam. Very similar to how my own Cocker Spaniel behaves.

The lady always plays ball with him when they are out and he’s fairly fixated on that also. I suggested no more ball play as this merely tunes up his prey drive and afterwards he is even more focussed on moving shadows and reflections. It looks like a ball quietly just given to him to carry may work as a distraction when he’s becoming bothered. We have one or two other ideas of things he can do – calming activities that are incompatible with chasing shadows.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have planned for Blue, which is why I don’t go into exact detail details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).