Stereotypy In Dogs: What It Means And How To Address It
“Stereotypy” can be described as repetitive, seemingly aimless behaviors such as pacing or spinning in circles. Stereotypy has been found in many species, including those kept in zoos and in laboratories. Oftentimes the presence of stereotypy indicates a poor environment or poor welfare of the animal overall. Companion dogs may also exhibit stereotypy. Stereotypy can interfere with the dogs’ day-to-day activities such as eating and playing, and may even harm dogs who compulsively self-mutilate.
This study aims to determine whether dogs who exhibit stereotypy are also more likely to repeat a task that was once rewarding even after the reward stops being given. The phase in which the behavior is reinforced by rewards is called “acquisition.” The phase that comes next, in which the reward stops being given, is called “extinction.” The basic idea here is to see whether greater resistance to extinction is a behavioral trait significantly associated with the trait of exhibiting stereotypy in companion dogs. A significant association between greater resistance to extinction and the presence of stereotypy has been found in various other species such as Asiatic black bears and horses.
For the purpose of this study, 26 companion dogs were each taught to associate nose-touching the experimenter’s hand with receiving food. Of the 26 pet dogs, 13 were dogs who exhibited stereotypy and 13 were dogs who did not exhibit stereotypy. Dogs who did not exhibit stereotypy were matched by breed to dogs who did exhibit stereotypy so that their results could be compared without the breed affecting the comparison. Once the experimenter stopped providing food for nose-touches, the number of times each dog continued to repeat the nose-touching behavior during this extinction phase was recorded. The experimenters observed a mean number of 13.4 nose-touches in the dogs who did not exhibit stereotypy and 26.0 nose-touches in the dogs who did.
Across all breeds, stereotypy was indeed found to be significantly associated with a greater number of nose-touches during extinction, and therefore a greater resistance to extinction. The findings of this study suggest that extinction procedures are not an effective way to manage the behaviors of dogs who exhibit stereotypy. The authors note, however, that “it remains to be seen whether these animals are insensitive to procedures that include reinforcement for alternative behaviors or punishment for the stereotypic behavior.” Further studies could investigate this possibility, or they could focus on finding other behaviors and traits are significantly more common in dogs who exhibit stereotypy. This information may be useful to the people with companion dogs who exhibit stereotypy, as well as to professionals who develop behavior management plans for companion dogs.[Contributed by Mona Zahir]