Pet therapist: Treating the obsessive-compulsive dog

I recently met Irie, a beautiful Labrador-hound cross, rescued and brought to Canada from the U.S. Irie’s new owners, University of B.C. students Will and Maurizio, were concerned about one-year-old Irie’s compulsive behaviours.

When I attended the house call, the first sign that something was up was the taped-up mail slot and a note to the letter carrier that read “Dog chews mail.�

The behaviour problems had started just a few weeks earlier, around the time Irie and her owners had been playing with a laser pointer. Since then, a light reflection on a wall or the shadow of a bird flying overhead would trigger fixations that even the tastiest treats couldn’t interrupt.

The questions Will and Maurizio asked were very much related to Irie’s welfare. How concerned should they be with this behaviour? Was this something that could escalate into a more severe problem? And most important, what should be done about it?

Irie’s fixation with reflections is classified as a Canine Compulsive Disorder. A study recently published by Tufts University found that dogs with CCDs show brain structural abnormalities analogous to people who have OCDs (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders).

CCDs can manifest in different ways in different breeds. For example, Dobermans tend to “flank suck.� Other breeds lick or chew excessively at their paws or penis, chase their tails, snap at the air, or move stereotypically in fixed patterns. Bird-hunting breeds that look up when they hunt seem especially predisposed to fixations with lights and shadows overhead.

Irie’s hound ancestry was just one risk factor. Others were her age, with CCDs typically occurring in dogs around a year old. Further, CCDs often occur following play sessions with a laser pointer. And when dogs are worriers, like Irie, some CCDs help anxious dogs to self-soothe, much like how a baby is comforted when sucking on a pacifier.

In extreme cases, dogs will self-mutilate and anti-anxiety medications are needed to help break the behaviour. But because Will and Maurizio had acted quickly, and the condition was not yet hazardous, a drug-free behavioural modification plan was implemented.

Irie was given more mental stimulation through feeding enrichment; she now has to work for her food. She was provided with more suitable outlets to self-soothe using chew treats. Laser pointer games were banned. And finally, she was given lots more exercise. Irie was by no means a neglected dog beforehand, but her high drive to work meant that her workout routine needed to be doubled.

Within just a few weeks, Will and Maurizio reported that the plan was working. Irie’s behaviour was markedly improved and the fixations quickly diminishing. Their swift intervention helped alleviate this problem and make Irie a happier dog.

Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland. Read her blog at