Obsessive behaviours in dogs are equivalent of human addiction and can become harmful both physically and mentally to dogs.
When dogs become mad over a toy or frantic when chasing cats or squirrels it may look funny, but the truth is that they have no control, physically and mentally. They chew an object to the extent their gum starts bleeding or chase a light until totally exhausted. Dog develop obsessive behaviour when they do not know when to stop.
Don’t get me wrong, dogs love to chew and chase and we must fulfil their needs, but it becomes harmful when there is no limit. It’s an addiction.
Sam is 2-year-old Labrador who was obsessed with tennis ball. He pulled the leash so badly and managed to dislocate his owner’s shoulder. Can you believe it? He created several dog fights as he is quite protective of any tennis ball, his or others. Once he was in the park, he jumped on a kid who was playing with a ball and snatched it from his hand. The result? They stopped taking him to the park, but he became so frustrated that walking him was an impossible job. Sam pulls and when he pulls, he really does a good job.
When I was called to help, I knew Sam’s issue is not only his obsession with tennis ball. In fact, that was only a symptom of the problem. As a 2-year-old dog, he was still peeing in the house. Sam had no limit. I needed to start from basic, getting him to focus through focus and structure training and getting the owner to take ownership of the relationship and provide direction. Sam now walks gently on the lead and is playful around tennis balls. He is back to the park.
How do you know if your dog’s behaviour is obsessive?
When dog become obsessive their body language visibly changes. You may notice their eyes pupils become fixated and you cannot distract them. Even when you offer a piece of food they would not take it. Their body stiffs, their nose stops moving, and they can’t hear you. They don’t use common sense anymore. They enter a zone where there is no joy in the play, there is no relaxation and they almost lose their spacious awareness.
How do I prevent obsessive behaviours?
As I said, dogs develop obsessive behaviour when they have no limit. For example, a balanced dog plays with a toy but does not destroy the toy. So, make sure you monitor the intensity of their play. Your dog must understand that there are limits, whether it is chasing the squirrels or playing with a toy. You need to set those limits not your dog.
Focus training would be very helpful for your dog. Try to teach your dog to stay when asked. Gradually increase the distance and duration. Once his response is solid, introduce him the same object he is obsessed about and ask him to sit and wait until you let him have it. This way he learns to focus on you and not the object, at the same time, he improves his impulse control.
How do I correct obsessive dog behaviours?
Prevention is always better that intervention so make sure your dog’s physical and psychological needs are fulfilled first. A dog who gets enough daily exercise and is given mental stimulation does not develop behavioural issues. In fact, most of the time an obsession is an outlet for frustration or suppressed energy and mental stimulation gives your dog something meaningful to do and alleviate boredom.
You cannot correct obsessive behaviours if you do not fulfil their needs first and if you do correct them when they exhibit such behaviours without providing physical and psychological challenge, they would simply redirect their obsession to other object/s.
However, if your dog gets to walk daily and gets to use his brain (mental stimulation) but still shows obsessive behaviour then this must be addressed.
Each dog is different, and you will need to learn to recognise the physical cues and signs before your dog gets into an obsessive state. Once you are familiar with those signs you will need to stop your dog before he gets into the obsessive state otherwise it is too late. For example, if your dog is obsessed with tennis balls, the more he chews the ball the more intense it becomes. If you allow him to get to a level when he chews obsessively, your dog may run away from you when you try to take it away, or he may growl at you, which is a warning. Your job is to observe the physical cues and signs before he gets to that level and to stop it from escalation. Never remove the object from his mouth as he may think you are playing with him or worse, you become a potential target. Prevention rather than intervention.
If you are still concerned about his behaviour, always seek professional help.