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Owners Can Play Big Role in Dogs' Problem Behaviors
  • Posted March 28, 2022

Owners Can Play Big Role in Dogs' Problem Behaviors

Chasing light shimmers reflected onto a wall. Obsessive licking or chewing. Compulsive barking and whining. Pacing or tail chasing.

Nearly one in three pet dogs suffer from these ADHD-like repetitive behaviors - and researchers now suspect that an animal's home life could be the cause.

A study involving thousands of Finnish pet dogs found that certain factors make a canine more likely to develop repetitive behaviors, including:

  • Belonging to a first-time dog owner.
  • Living in a larger family.
  • Being the only dog in a family.
  • Getting little exercise.

"Environmental factors that potentially increase stress in a dog's life, such as a low amount of exercise or larger family size, may increase the probability of repetitive behavior," said lead researcher Sini Sulkama. She is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

These repetitive behaviors can range from the annoying to the actively harmful.

Dogs can injure themselves by licking or chewing a paw, or break a tooth lunging at a glimmer of light on a wall, said Erica Feuerbacher, an associate professor who studies domestic dog behavior at the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Blacksburg, Va.

Feuerbacher herself ran into such trouble while transporting a rescue Belgian Malinois, because she didn't know that the dog was a "light chaser."

"We had just had her loose in the back of my car, kind of tethered but not in a crate," Feuerbacher recalled. "And my phone flashed, caught a light, and she leapt into the driver's seat - while I was driving! I had a mesh barrier up between the front seats and the back of the car, but she launched herself over it!"

She added: "Luckily [my husband] was able to catch her and restrain her. We pulled over right after that and he sat in the back with her the rest of the way" to keep her settled, so those lights didn't cause an accident.

For the study, Sulkama and her colleagues gathered questionnaire data on almost 4,500 Finnish pet dogs and their owners.

About 30% of the dogs in the study engaged in repetitive behaviors, the researchers found, and the likelihood of these behaviors was associated with a dog's home and lifestyle.

For example, dogs that are their owner's first canine companion are 58% more likely to develop repetitive behaviors than ones that belong to veteran dog owners, results show.

"In the case of first-time owners, they may provide inconsistent training, which could increase stress," Sulkama said. "Or the inexperienced owners may not detect abnormal repetitive behavior as early as experienced owners. Then it is more likely that the behavior becomes more common with repetition."

Dogs that live with one person fare better, and are 33% less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors than those in a family of three or more people.

But dogs that did not live with another dog were 64% more likely to have repetitive behaviors.

"In larger families, the environment may be noisier and busier, life can be more stressful and predispose dogs to perform repetitive behavior," Sulkama said. "It is also possible that in single-person households, owners have more time to spend with their dogs and give them attention, such as playtime, petting and exercise that can also reduce stress."

Physical activity was a big help in preventing repetitive behaviors.

Dogs getting less than one hour of exercise per day were 53% more likely to have these behaviors than dogs that exercise one to two hours daily; 85% more likely than dogs with two to three hours of exercise; and twice as likely as dogs that get more than three hours a day, the study results showed.

"Physical activity may prevent anxiety disorders, at least in humans, and exercise can be used as a treatment to improve stress resilience and decrease anxiety," Sulkama said. "It is possible that exercise prevents frustration and stress in dogs, too."

Certain breeds are more likely to engage in repetitive behaviors, the study authors said. These include German Shepherds, Chinese Crested Dogs, Pembroke Welsh Corgis and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

Other breeds were less likely to have repetitive behaviors - Smooth Collies, Miniature Schnauzers, Lagotto Romagnolos and Jack Russel Terriers.

"I know some people really just want a specific breed - I think being aware of the behavioral risks of certain breeds is really important, just as important as being aware of the health risks for certain breeds," Feuerbacher said.

"If you're a first-time dog owner and you're dead set on a German Shepherd, make sure you really understand the breed and maybe educate yourself a little more," she continued. "And then take the dog through a lot of training and get a lot of outside support."

People who have a dog with repetitive behaviors can help calm them down by getting them lots of exercise and mental stimulation, Feuerbacher said.

"Enrichment" activities to work your dog's brain can include giving them puzzle toys that dispense treats, or hiding favorite objects around your house and asking your dog to find them, she said.

"All owned dogs can use more enrichment," Feuerbacher said. "Even if you think your dog's not at risk, providing lots of enrichment opportunities for them would be great."

The new study was published online March 24 in Scientific Reports.

More information

The ASPCA has some examples of enrichment activities for dogs.

SOURCES: Sini Sulkama, MSc, doctoral researcher, department of medical and clinical genetics, University of Helsinki, Finland; Erica Feuerbacher, PhD, associate professor, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.; Scientific Reports, March 24, 2022, online

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