Repetitive Behaviour in Kennelled Domestic Dog: Stereotypical or Not?
Behavior in animals that is repetitive, unvarying, and has no obvious goal is often described as “stereotypical.” It is generally seen most frequently in situations of captivity and / or stress. However, not all repetitive behavior is stereotypical, and this study seeks to better understand how kenneled domestic dogs display (or don’t display) this behavior. The research finds a tremendous variance in the stimuli that can trigger stereotypical behavior, and notes the difficulty in assessing exact causes.
Stereotypical behavior, defined as repetitive and invariant actions with no obvious function or goal, is often thought to indicate poor welfare and psychological distress in animals. Though these behaviors, frequently seen across wide populations of animals (for example, the overall population of shelter dogs, or animals in factory farms), do not manifest in the same way on an individual level. The authors of this study on stereotypies in kenneled dogs state that “at an individual level, within a given environment, stereotypies often occur in individuals which are “better off” and show fewer concurrent symptoms of poor welfare than their non-stereotyping counterparts.” What this uneven individual expression means is that “the use of stereotypical behaviour as an indicator of welfare, needs to be interpreted with caution.” Therefore, the individuals showing the most stereotypical behavior are not necessarily the worst off. Though many studies have been carried out examining stereotypical behavior of captive farmed, laboratory, and zoo animals, the study of stereotypies in kenneled domestic dogs is not as well understood.
To remedy this, researchers studied 30 kenneled German Shepherd fully trained police dogs, with ages ranging from 18-112 months. They were observed in numerous ways with various kinds of stimulation. “Repetitive behaviour was observed in 41.3% of samples taken (out of 30 dogs, 10 samples each). Only two dogs were never observed to perform repetitive behaviour.” Most often, the dogs performed the behaviors when stimulated by the presence of kennel care assistants, and engaged in the behavior less in the presence of an unfamiliar person. But despite these broad tendencies, the researchers note that “individual dogs differ in the stimuli to which they respond.” In other words, though it is possible to outline certain tendencies among kenneled dogs, stereotypical behavior is a very individualized phenomenon.
“The lack of uniformity in the form and intensity of repetitive behavior, and in the triggering stimuli, suggests that such behaviour is unlikely to have a single motivation.” The authors note that in particular, dogs who exhibited spontaneous repetitive behavior at times of minimal stimulation showed different stress responses than their counterparts. They also state that “the performance of repetitive behaviour by dogs and their welfare status therefore requires further investigation.” The overall findings of this study may help animal advocates who work with shelter dogs, as it supports the view that each dog should be treated as unique and their problems should be addressed in an individual way.
Repetitive behaviour is common in kennelled dogs, yet its motivational basis remains relatively unexplored. We examine the repetitive behaviour of 30 kennelled working dogs in ten contexts both coinciding with, and in the absence of, commonly occurring arousing stimuli, such as care staff, other dogs and food preparation. A large pro- portion (93%) of subjects performed some repetitive behaviour, most commonly bouncing, but only 17% in the absence of the arousing stimuli. Subjects could be divided into four groups according to the stimuli eliciting, and the duration, of their repetitive behaviour, and these groups were compared on the basis of their cortisol response to an acute psychogenic stressor — a veterinary examination. Urinary cortisol/creatinine response curves differed significantly between the groups. In particular, those dogs which performed repetitive behaviour at times of minimal stimulation, showed a distinctly different pattern of response, with cortisol levels decreasing, as compared to increasing, after the veterinary examination. We conclude that dogs showing repetitive behaviours at times of high arousal are motivationally distinct from those “stereotyping” in the absence of stimulation. We suggest that those dogs showing spontaneous repetitive behaviours may have past experiences and/or temperaments that affect both their reactions to a veterinary examination and to long-term kennelling. For example, some dogs may find isolation from humans particularly aversive, hence affecting their reactions both to being left in a kennel and to being taken to the veterinary surgeon. Alternatively, such dogs may have atypical responsiveness of their hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, possibly brought about through chronic stress. High levels of repetitive behaviours in response to inaccessible husbandry events may be explained if such behaviour has inadvertently been reinforced by attention from staff, and therefore may not always be indicative of aversion to kennelling or compromised welfare.