Repetitive Behaviors in Dogs | Champion of My Heart

In March 2022, Nature/Scientific Reports published an article titled “Aggression, ADHD-Like Behaviors, and Environment Influence Repetitive Behavior in Dogs”. Let’s take a look at what they found, including types of repetitive behaviors in dogs, possible triggers for the development of compulsive behaviors, breeds most likely to develop repetitive behaviors, and common treatments. I made a video, but you can also read the same information below.


Study details

The study used data from 4,500 Finnish pet dogs (aged 2.4 months to 17.9 years). Basically, families completed an online questionnaire about dog behavior. Of the 4,500 dogs, people reported that:

  • 1,315 of these dogs displayed repetitive behaviors
  • 3,121 of these dogs did NOT display repetitive behaviors

For context, previous research estimates that 16% of companion dogs exhibit observable repetitive behaviors.

Types of Compulsive Canine Behaviors

Researchers classify the different compulsive behaviors of dogs into 5 types:

  1. Locomotive – circling, tail chasing, pacing, chasing lights and freezing in place
  2. Oral – chewing on legs or feet, licking oneself, so-called “flank sucking”, licking or chewing on objects and slapping in the air
  3. Self-directed aggression – growling/biting the hindquarters, legs or tail
  4. Vocalization – compulsive rhythmic barking or whining
  5. Hallucinatory behaviorrs – watch the shadows or chase the lights

We have already talked about chasing the lights. This is *really common with border collies.

Possible Triggers of Repetitive Behaviors in Dogs

Previous research reports that certain experiences can trigger repetitive behaviors in dogs, including:

  • Frustration
  • Boredom
  • Stress
  • weaning age
  • Lack of socialization
  • Presence of other dogs
  • Comorbidity with other behavior problems

Conclusions of this study

The researchers say, “Several demographic, environmental, and behavioral variables increased the likelihood of repetitive behaviors in dogs.”

Dog Demographics

  • Age > “Dog age was associated with repetitive behavior.” Higher likelihood in young dogs and dogs over 8 years old.
  • 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 gender, particularly male Bull Terriers.
  • Sterilization > “There was an association between neutering and repetitive behavior, as intact dogs had a lower likelihood of repetitive behavior than neutered dogs.” Other studies have shown that particularly sterilized females
    low probability of repetitive behaviors.

Dog Environmental Factors

  • Exercise > “Dogs doing less daily exercise had a higher likelihood of repetitive behavior.” Specifically, dogs getting less than an hour of exercise per day
  • single dog > “As hypothesized, dogs that were only dogs in the family had a higher likelihood of repetitive behavior than dogs living 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 new finding that has not been seen in other research. Replication in future studies would be needed to solidify this finding.
  • Family size > “Dogs living in one-person households were less likely to show repetitive behavior than dogs living in two-person households or larger families (more than 2 children or more than 2 adults in the family .)” This should also be validated by further research.

Breeds most likely to develop repetitive behaviors

Highest probability

  • german shepherd dogs
  • chinese crested dogs
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgis
  • Medium Spitz
  • Staffordshire Bull Terriers

Lowest probability

  • smooth collie
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Lagotto Romagnolo
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • rough collie

The researchers also found differences between breeds in terms of the type of repetitive behaviors that different breeds develop, such as:

  • Higher prevalence of tail chasing in Staffordshire Bull Terriers
  • Higher Prevalence of Staring and Snorting in Border Collies

Behavioral factors

Dogs with higher scores for these other behaviors had a higher likelihood of exhibiting repetitive behaviors:

  • Hyperactivity / impulsivity
  • Inattention
  • Aggression – In particular, higher levels of aggression increase 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 resulting from impaired executive functions
  • Structural abnormalities in the brain
  • Increased blood cholesterol level
  • Imbalanced pathways for serotonin and dopamine

Common Treatments for Repetitive Behaviors in Dogs

Doctors also use similar drugs and other treatments for these behaviors in people and dogs, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or clomipramine (Anafranil for people; Clomicalm for dogs)

Why is this important?

“As abnormal repetitive behavior can significantly worsen dog well-being and impair the dog-owner relationship, understanding the factors affecting canine repetitive behavior can benefit both dogs and humans.”

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