Some of our research findings

By Rachel Casey | research

Understanding repetitive or compulsive behaviour in dogs

Some dogs show abnormal behaviours, such as spinning in a circle or chasing shadows. These behviours are often distressing for owners, and can be a serious welfare issue for dogs. However, very little is known about why some dogs develop these behaviours and others don't - nor how much showing these types of behaviour might be an indicator of current welfare.

A recent project funded by Dogs Trust at the University of Bristol aimed to better understand the relationship between abnormal spinning behaviour and measures of welfare. The project also aimed to investigate whether certain personality characteristics were associated with this behaviour to help identify dogs which may be 'at risk'.

Dogs were recruited for the study from both re-homing centres and those living with their owners. Both dogs which were spinning and unaffected ‘control’ dogs were recruited to compare the two groups. Measures of welfare were collected for all dogs and included analysis of stress hormones in urine, assessing behavioural indicators of anxiety or fear during normal activities, and testing for optimistic responses during a reward based training task (which the dogs all loved!). A personality characteristic termed ‘perseveration’ was also tested for during training. Dogs showing perseverative responses during the training task were those who took longest to change their response when rules of the task changed (they had to learn a different behaviour to get their reward).

When spinning dogs were compared to unaffected dogs, there was no difference in their urinary stress hormone levels. Likewise, no difference were found in optimistic responses during the training task. However, spinning and tail chasing dogs were reported to display signs of anxiety or fear in a range of situations when compared to control dogs. This applied to both dogs in re-homing centres and those in homes.

The results of the test assessing perseverative characteristics found that spinning dogs housed in re-homing centres took longest to learn to change their behaviour response when compared to unaffected dogs.

What does this mean?

Spinning dogs appeared to be similar to control dogs in how optimistic they were, and showed similar levels of stress hormones. This means that the study found no sign that dogs showing this behaviour were more stressed than other dogs at the time of testing. This could be explained in a number of ways:

  • Studies in other animals have suggested that these types of behaviour can develop at a time of particular stress, but stay with an animal, almost like a ‘psychological scar’, even when the environment is less stressful. It is therefore possible that the spinning behaviour developed in the affected group at some time in the past, reflecting poor welfare earlier in their life rather than currently.
  • Another factor may be that these types of behaviour are one type of ‘coping strategy’– in other words some animals show apparently abnormal responses because it helps them deal with a difficult environment. This means that a dog which spins at a time of excitement or anxiety may be no more stressed than one which shows other types of behavioural response:  but has developed this particular type of response rather than a more ‘normal’ behaviour.
  • Another explanation is that many of the owners and re-homing centre staff were working to change the behaviour of the dogs in the affected group – for example by avoiding or dealing with any factors which precipitated this behaviour. This could mean that although the behaviour was still occurring on some occasions, the affected dogs were less stressed as a result of the behaviour therapy they were having.

Interestingly, spinning dogs were reported to react to more of the standard situations when compared to control dogs, despite no differences in the other welfare measures. It is possible that spinning dogs are the type of dogs that show lots of behaviour responses to a range of situations (not just spinning!) and therefore the difference between spinning dogs and controls is simply their behavioural style of reacting.

The differences in perseverative characteristics between the groups of dogs suggests that the spinning dogs in re-homing centres took longer to learn a new rule, which is something we need to consider in the training context. The results of the study therefore suggest that we should be concerned about these behaviours developing, because they are related to differences in the ability of dogs to change their response. However, the lack of difference found in  welfare measures may reflect the fact that many of the dogs displaying spinning were not more stressed than others - possibly because they were already being treated, because spinning can occur for a number of different reasons (even positive ones such as play) or because spinning itself helps to reduce stress in affected dogs.