If you look in veterinary literature, you will find reports of Bull Terriers who destructively bite their own tails. These dogs are so persistent that they often do enough damage to require removal of the tail. The odd thing about this disorder is that removing the tail may not stop the behavior. Some dogs continue to bite at the place where a tail should be. In veterinary circles, this behavior is considered neurological in origin. In common terms, this type of behavior is usually labeled “nutso.”

A couple of years ago I received a call from a veterinarian faced with the task of treating a tail-chewing Bull Terrier. Recent advances in drug therapy have created a tendency to prescribe medicine to battle these types of problems, but in this case, nothing had worked. The owner was getting a little testy about spending over $1,000 on tests and medication with no visible results. My first reaction was to take a “suspenders and belt” approach to the diagnosis. As much as this case matched the others I had read about, I still asked what is often the most important question regarding this type of behavior: “Does the dog chew his tail when no one is looking?” The answer was what I expected—no one had thought to check on that.

The reason this question is so important is that animals often repeat a behavior merely because the performance ends with praise, affection, and treats. For instance, if a dog accidentally chases its tail and receives laughter and affection from his owner, tail chasing may become a regular part of the dog’s behavioral repertoire. Though the dog is probably not too thrilled with spinning, he is very fascinated with the affection that spinning brings. A behavior that is created by this type of reinforcement is almost never displayed when the dog is by himself. If you observe this dog secretly, you will probably never see the dog spin in circles. Spinning is maintained by human praise and affection rather than by some brain dysfunction. This is ironically not aberrant behavior—it’s the foundation for all animal training. If a dog couldn’t learn to repeat a behavior in response to external reward, then dog training would be impossible. That it can go awry is the issue.

Surprise Ending

To test the tail-chewing Bull Terrier, I requested that the dog be confined to a kennel for a day. Periodically, the dog was to be observed from hiding. If the dog spun, even in the absence of people, there was a good indication that the behavior was due to a neurological defect. If the dog didn’t spin or spun less than normal, we would know that there was a behavioral component that was at least partially maintained by the owner’s attention. (The same thing can now be done with an inexpensive Internet video camera with a memory card.)

A couple of weeks passed with no word on the observation test. I called the veterinarian and discovered that the owner had gotten fed up with the expenses and gave the dog away. I called the original owner and got his permission to call the new owner. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
“Hi, this is Gary Wilkes. I am a behaviorist working with Dr. Smith, the vet that was treating your dog. I am wondering if you are having the same degree of problem behavior since you got Buddy.”

“What problem is that?” the new owner asked.

“The tail chewing, of course. Does the dog still spin wildly and bite at its tail?” I asked.

“Oh, no, he hasn’t done that since I first got him. The first time I saw it, it made me sort of embarrassed. He was a cool-looking dog, but I didn’t want to own a dog who sat there chewing on himself. That first time I saw him do it, I yelled at him and tossed a cup of water in his face. He hasn’t done it since.”

If this sounds too simple, it’s not. Because the rise of veterinary behaviorism leads to blood tests, neurological exams, and “anxiety medication,” few people consider simple behavioral solutions to what seem like bizarre behaviors. The rise in “all positive” training has compounded the problem even further. Positive reinforcement cannot stop behaviors, by definition. If that is your only tool, you can’t stop anything. This would be like having “scissor-less” grooming and trying to sculpt a Kerry Blue. That isn’t likely to work. The reality is that neither anti-anxiety medication nor “all positive” training represent the sum of humane, ethical, and effective tools for behavior modification.

Consider that the anti-anxiety meds didn’t stop the Bull Terrier from attacking his tail. Teaching an alternate behavior would have failed, too. That is because teaching a new behavior cannot block an existing behavior. Learning French doesn’t make you forget English. The thing that stopped the Bull Terrier was a splash of cold water. It didn’t take an advanced degree in behavior to solve this problem. On the contrary, someone with an advanced degree would be likely to offer a one-trick pony non-solution.

One of the advantages of being a groomer is the opportunity to see thousands of dogs. While you may not have seen everything, you have undoubtedly seen things that the average client hasn’t. Sometimes the correct answer is, “I’ve seen that before. It’s not a big deal.” For more bizarre things, adding to your diagnostic skills can save your client a great deal of needless cost and worry and may save the animal’s life. Here are several thoughts about how to evaluate odd behavior:

  1. Always check to see if the behavior occurs in the absence of people. This may tell you if the behavior is simply a reinforced behavior gone wrong or a genuine neurological problem.
  2. Try simple distractions to interrupt the behavior—hand clapping, picking up a leash, or offering a treat. If you can stop a behavior by picking up a leash, it means that it’s controllable by things other than drugs.
  3. Before suggesting expensive, invasive medical testing and often ineffective drug therapies, ask yourself if the behavior is really harmful. A dog that spins more than other dogs isn’t likely to die from the behavior. Maybe it’s just a harmless idiosyncrasy.
  4. Attach a different consequence to the behavior. The idea is to create a new association on top of the old behavior and see what happens. If the dog spins, start leaving the room or putting the dog outside. If there is no change, then it may be a sign of a true brain abnormality. That suggests that a veterinary exam specifically about the behavior may be in order.