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Obsessive Behavior and the
‘Cup of Water’ Cure

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

About ten years ago, there were several reports from Australia of Bull Terriers that obsessively spun and bit their tails – sometimes to the point of damage requiring necessary amputation. Recently, on a Yahoo! list for behavior counselors, a trainer reported a Bull Terrier that chased its tail. The immediate recommendation was to send the dog to a veterinarian behaviorist for testing and drug treatment. It was even mentioned that the dog should be sent to a veterinary learning institution for study. That reminded me of a case that I almost worked on back in the late 1990s.

Breed: Bull Terrier
Sex: Intact Male
Age: 1 year
Problem: Spinning and tail chewing

I was called by a veterinarian to look at a Bull Terrier that was persistently spinning and attacking his own tail. I already knew of the condition from citations in the veterinary literature. The dog’s vet didn’t discover any neurological disorders but referred the client to a local neurological clinic. The dog was duly examined by a veterinary neurologist and given a battery of tests. None of the neurological tests displayed abnormalities of brain structure or function.

The dog was placed on a psychotropic drug, and the owner was asked to monitor the dog’s progress. The behavior did not decrease. That’s why I was asked to evaluate the dog with a fresh perspective. I don’t like psychotropic drugs much. Since I am not a veterinarian, I can’t prescribe them anyway. I have always thought that attempting a behavioral solution first doesn’t do any harm and can yield a solution without expensive testing and delayed treatment. I am not opposed to psychotropic drugs; I simply want to see results that show up in a blind test. In this case, drugs had already proved ineffective, and there was no downside to attempting to try a behavioral solution.

There were two things that struck me about this case from the beginning. First, no one had ever observed the dog in the absence of humans. Many incredibly odd behaviors are the result of unintentional reinforcement by the dog’s owners. Unless the dog is observed secretly, there is no way to detect if the behavior is actually a neurological disorder or if the dog is soliciting attention or affection. Second, no attempt had been made to control the behavior with so much as a request to “sit.” I planned to investigate both of these things.

After making a suggestion that the dog be kenneled for secret camera observation, I had the opportunity to speak to the owner. I got a big surprise. He didn’t have the dog anymore. He told me that the combined costs of the dog, neurological exams, and medicine had already cost him several thousand dollars. He really couldn’t afford to keep the dog, so he gave it to a coworker.

Despite this setback, I was determined to track down the dog. I called the coworker to see if I could be of assistance with the tail-spinning. I got another surprise. When the man got the dog, he thought the spinning behavior was “lame.” The first time he saw it, he threw a glass of water in the dog’s face. The behavior stopped. Oops. Now you know why I said that I “almost” worked on this case. A pet owner beat me to the punch and outclassed a host of learned doctors and modern drug therapies. Sometimes less is more.

This kind of result shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Doctors have a specific orientation for solving problems. They use biological tests to diagnose a problem and then use surgery or medications to cure the disease. If they see this kind of behavior, they sincerely offer the solution they know best: a medical solution.

The prevailing perspective within modern dog training and behavior also classifies obsessive behavior as a physiological abnormality that requires a medical solution. This misses a very big elephant in the living room: obsessive behavior isn’t a medical malady. It’s the reason we domesticated dogs in the first place. In most cases, the obsessive behavior is meant to solve a specific problem, such as driving Australian range cattle by biting their hind feet.

An English Pointer will go 50 miles a day seeking a bird that he will never catch. His only goal is to stand frozen and point his nose at it. Retrievers will bring back literally anything you throw, over and over and over all day long, even if they are not edible and they never get a treat other than the opportunity to haul things around. These dogs are plainly crazy. They never actually get the brass ring – like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football while Lucy holds it.

That is the real reason dogs have remained our closest companions and workmates. We can make them selectively crazy. They are so crazed that if you stop them from doing their genetic task, they become anxious, panicked, destructive, and violent. Their behavior is identical to the condition known as “separation anxiety.” We all know this. Why wouldn’t we assume that the same methods so effective at controlling obsessive behavior in the field would work equally well for tail-chasing? Why wouldn’t we try that first? Good questions.

Obviously, what I have said is going to raise some hackles. The people who make their living medicating animals aren’t going to like having their practices called into question. However, that is how our mutual professions grow and advance: by questioning, testing, evaluating, and perfecting our knowledge.

From my own experience, bypassing trainers to seek a medical solution to obsessive behavior is often counterproductive for the dog and owner. Many of these animals could be fixed with purely behavioral solutions more quickly, surely, and cheaply than with drugs. I believe that because I routinely fix dogs that would typically be diagnosed as having OCD or some other behavior disorder. I’ve been doing it for more than 25 years.

Consider this one, Chloe, a Border Collie mix. (If ever there were a breed that embodied OCD, it’s Border Collies.) I hate to make you type in a web address, but if you are willing to do it, you will see my evidence to back up my statements. Chloe has obvious symptoms of OCD, and I stopped it in less than a week without drugs or electric shock. After you view the video, consider consulting a working dog trainer the next time you see an OCD dog. Someone who can play Lucy to an English Pointer’s Charlie Brown isn’t just chasing his tail. ✂