Vet Diagnoses Dogs With Compulsive Disorder

ByLee Dye

Oct. 24, 2002 -- Have you ever noticed that some people look like their dog, or cat?

Well, maybe that's just my imagination, but it turns out that many of us have pets that are far more like us than we might think, and that's not always good.

Andrew Luescher, a veterinarian who is director of Purdue University's Animal Behavior Clinic, has found that many dogs even have emotional disorders that are more commonly associated with humans than pets. Luescher, one of about 30 board certified animal behaviorists in the country, estimates that about one dog out of 50 suffers from canine compulsive disorder.

"That's a very, very rough estimate," Luescher says, but the disease is common enough that most people have probably had a close encounter with a pet that was, well, emotionally screwed up.

The condition sometimes causes a dog to bark for hours on end, in a monotonous monotone, even when there isn't much around that's worth barking about. Or chase its tail in endless circles. Or lick itself until its skin is raw.

Luescher has a couple of trials underway in his lab in West Lafayette, Ind., to see if drugs prescribed for humans suffering from a similar disorder might also work for dogs. But he says drugs alone are not the solution. A dog's ability to pull itself out of canine compulsive disorder depends largely upon how the owner deals with the situation. It's a lot easier to make things worse than it is to cure the pooch, the vet says.

Don't punish the animal for exhibiting the symptoms, regardless of how annoying they are, he says, because punishment reinforces the underlying causes of the disorder — anxiety and stress.

Possible Causes of Canine Compulsive Behavior

Although there is probably a genetic component to the disease, Luescher says, the main contributor is the environment that the dog is forced to live in.

"Their environment is unpredictable, or they can't have any control over it," he says. Sometimes, he adds, the problem can simply be another pet.

"Maybe there's another dog in the house that they're afraid of," he says.

To deal with the stress, the dog begins by exhibiting normal behavior, like barking, or running around, or looking away.

"That's where the compulsive behavior starts," he says. "They are comfortable using that behavior, which is totally normal, but if repeated frequently it becomes easier and easier to trigger it. And then they start to show that behavior whenever their anxiety level or arousal level is high enough, regardless of the situation."

So a dog that is going through separation anxiety because its owner is about to leave for work may lie down and lick its paws, and soon find itself licking its paws whether the owner is there or not. Eventually, it may lick its paws, or some other part of its body, endlessly, even to the point of wearing away its fur and exposing its raw skin to infection.

Treating a Doggie Disorder

The way to solve the problem is to seek professional help, the vet suggests, but there are a number of things the pet owner can do to help the animal.

First on the list is to find out what started it all, or what first caused the dog to get so aroused that it began to make a fool of itself. Then, remove that conflict, if possible.

It's also important, Luescher says, to "give the dog as much control over its environment as possible."

That's a little tough for city dwellers who have to keep their dogs penned up, but Luescher says something as simple as a walk can go a long ways toward relieving canine stress.

"It really, really helps to walk the dog because that reduces its arousal and anxiety level," he says. "They get to sniff and see and hear so many new things on a walk and that's a motivation that all dogs have. They really have a need to check out new things. And if you deny them that by keeping them in the house and the backyard where things are fairly consistent, their anxiety level increases. They are like children with cabin fever."

Punishing the dog for exhibiting signs of canine stress disorder is always a no-no, he says.

"You could probably make every dog have compulsive disorder if you provide enough threats or conflicts," he says.

Likewise, don't try to kill the symptoms with too much kindness. Petting the dog to distract it away from chasing its tail, or giving it a treat to stop if from barking, will send the wrong message. The animal will most likely think it's being rewarded for the unwanted behavior.

Back to Basics

Luescher counsels pet owners to go back to the beginning and retrain their pooch almost from scratch, so to speak.

"Do not have any casual interaction [with the pet] for maybe four weeks," he suggests. "There's no talking to the dog, or petting it, or anything like that. All interactions with the dog should begin the same way. First, give it a command [like sit] and then get the dog to do the behavior. Then reward the dog for that behavior."

Pretty soon, the dog should relearn that first lesson. Do what the boss wants, and get a reward.

"The dog gains lots of control because obviously the dog can bring about the reward," Luescher says.

It works, he adds, because "from the dog's perspective the dog is training the owner as much as the other way around."

Eventually, everything can return to normal with a predictable environment for the dog, less stress for both the owner and the pet, and friendlier neighbors who won't have to listen to the mutt bark hour after hour.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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