‘Fido, Stop’: Researching The Reinforcement Of Stereotypic Behaviors In Dogs
Have you ever seen a dog do something that makes you scratch your head and wonder, “why are they doing that?” Maybe the dog is chasing his or her tail or staring at a blank wall. There’s a term for these inexplicable actions: stereotypic behavior. These are basically repetitive actions that don’t serve a clear function. If a dog starts to regularly exhibit several of these behaviors, he or she may actually be diagnosed with canine compulsive disorder (CCD), the dog equivalent to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in humans.
What’s the harm? After all, a dog chasing shadows on the wall can be harmless, and some people even find it entertaining. However, while some of these behaviors are just annoyances to guardians, they can also translate into serious behavioral issues indicative of stress or other conflicts that require a veterinarian’s help. Depending on the severity of the situation, guardians may seek out ways to reduce these behaviors in their dogs.
Researchers have studied the reason behind these behaviors for some time, and some are wondering if humans unintentionally (or intentionally) encourage these behaviors. When we smile and laugh in response to a dog’s antics, are we reinforcing the behavior as good and desirable? The authors of this report set out to explore the relationship between these two events, conducting three studies to try and find a connection between dogs’ sometimes erratic behavior and humans’ reactions to it.
The first study was a survey asking guardians about their dogs’ behaviors, frequency, their perceived reasons for the behaviors, and how they reacted. This survey specifically addressed the behaviors of circling (pacing), fixation (staring at something for no reason), light chasing, and licking objects for no reason.
Of the 99 participants, many reported their dogs performing stereotypic behavior at least three times daily. This was applicable to all behaviors except for light chasing (which was more of a monthly occurrence). A third of the participants believed that circling was caused by stress. As for the rest of the behaviors, guardians most frequently believed that starting/stopping play, boredom, and sheer unpredictability were the reasons behind their companions’ behaviors. When it came to guardians’ reactions to the behaviors, the three most common answers were telling the dog “stop,” ignoring the dog, and physically stopping the dog from performing the behavior.
Researchers wondered if these “negative” reactions such as telling a dog to stop or physically holding it back could actually reinforce the stereotypic behaviors. Six participants of the first study moved on to participate in a second study, chosen because all of their companion dogs had stereotypic behavior considered problematic. Two of the dogs had problems with light chasing, so their actions were observed while researchers shone a light on a wall. The dogs ended up being most active when the light was being moved around and didn’t seem impacted by guardian intervention. This led researchers to believe that light chasing could be related to prey chasing.
In another test, a dog who had a problem with circling ended up doing the behavior most after she was told to sit – a form of guardian intervention, but this was actually reinforcing the behavior. In a test for licking, a similar relationship was found: when the guardian called the dog’s name and praised her for halting the behavior, the dog ended up licking objects more.
In the third and final study, the three dogs from the second study for which researchers had identified reinforcers were brought back. The objective was to try and decrease these behaviors now that they knew what drove them.
For the dog who loved chasing lights, researchers tried to replace the chasing behavior with a paw “wave” instead. Using food to reinforce the desired behavior, researchers encouraged the dog to wave her paw when she saw the light instead of pouncing on it. By the end, researchers recorded a behavior reduction of 95%, meaning the dog was waving instead of chasing the vast majority of the time.
The dog who paced in circles was indeed motivated by attention. Researchers instructed the guardian to ignore her and leave the room when she started to circle, removing any potential for reinforcing attention. If she stopped circling as the guardian approached and opened the door to leave, the guardian would turn around and give praise. Researchers saw a reduction behavior of 83.6%.
Finally, researchers addressed the dog who liked to lick the floor. They employed a similar strategy to the circling dog: when she licked, the guardian ignored her. When she didn’t lick, she received praise. The dog’s floor-licking decreased a little, but it was still at a high level. The next strategy tried was having the guardian leave the room once she started to lick. This was the reaction that was most effective at reducing behavior, leading to a 90.7% decrease.
While these studies are exploratory in nature, the data still reveal interesting and significant conclusions. For one, we can identify and, consequently, manipulate environmental conditions to address stereotypic behavior. If a dog is acting out in undesirable ways, guardians may be able to pinpoint a reinforcer to solve it one way or another. In two of the cases, the behavior was completely reduced by changing the environmental condition of attention. For the other dog, while the innate instinct to chase prey wasn’t completely extinguished, expression of it was replaced with a simple paw wave.
This means that options for treatment are, fittingly, as different and varied as our dogs are. The three of these studies together present some potential new ideas in the treatment of CCD and stereotypic behaviors, but the information is still valuable to anyone who interacts with dogs. The next time you see a dog exhibit what you now know is stereotypic behavior, think back to this research. You may even be able to give that dog the help he or she is in need of.