Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour- Treatment, Prognosis, Causes, Management & Prevention

Light Chasing & Obsessive Compulsive Behaviours In Dogs
Treatment, Management & Prevention

It is often dogs who have a high prey/chase drive that become fixated on shadows, reflections and light. This often starts out as a fun game which could have its roots in the relief of boredom.

Light chasing falls into the realms of obsessive compulsive disorder and this is defined by the repetitive, stereotypic motor, locomotor or hallucinogenic behaviours that occur out of context. If the frequency in which they occur is outside their normal occurrence (usually to accomplish an ostensible goal) and they interfere with the animal’s ability to function (normally) in his social environment, then we need to help modify this behaviour. It would seem that the obsessive part of this condition drives the compulsion. When there is an “excess” component to this condition, it needs to be addressed. It is possible to suppress the behaviour (with chemicals, devices or other punishment techniques)  but this will do little to attenuate the desire for the behaviour. It is thought that this mental suffering is possibly more painful than physical pain & the best practice approach would be to find out what the motivating operation of the behaviour is (is there a medical component or physical reason why the behaviour occurs) reduce the number of instances of the target behaviour (through environmental manipulations) and then at the same time increasing another desirable, reinforcing behaviour which can replace it.


Firstly, we need to establish the intensity of action. Is it excessive or a manifestation of OCD? There is much debate about whether or not dogs are obsessed (as such). The frequently used term for dogs is Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD). Record keeping of the behaviour using tick lists, videos and narrative descriptions of the behaviour along with its duration are also useful. It is important to identify the extent to which the behaviours occur within a continuum & the relationship the behaviour has with other factors, locations etc. Whilst tracking these behaviours it is important that you can determine if things are getting better or worse with treatment. A 3 day baseline in each location would be a good place to start. It is necessary to ascertain if this is a fully developed case of OCD or not. Most fully developed cases will not improve without medication so the diagnosis is very important. There is a huge overlap between behavioural & neurological conditions and these are poorly understood. There is often a genetic and biochemical component to these behaviours. However, they are all thought to arise through conflict, stress and arousal. The different types of OCD are thought to have different neurological underpinnings. The good news is, they all seem to respond to similar treatment protocols.

Common Triggers:

Dr Luescher estimates 1-50 dogs suffer from CCD & Hewson gives examples of environmental stressors that can trigger compulsive behaviours:

  • Confinement, physical restraints, being chained.
  • Social conflicts, changes in social group or separation
  • Unpredictable or uncontrollable environment
  • Lack of target object for normal behaviour. A dog that is isolated and does not have a normal outlet for his natural instinctive or social behaviour, whether animal or human.
  • It has been suggested that seizure activity might play a role in triggering CCD.
  • Dr Andrew Luescher states that you could probably make every dog have CCD if you provide enough threats or conflict
  • Most behaviorist’s agree that the primary culprit is stress

Therefore, prophylactic stress reduction can prevent OCD, by reducing the dog’s stress in the early stages may extinguish it. But reducing the dog’s stress (as part of a complete behavior modification program) can reduce even well-established OCD behaviors.

Stress-Reducing Tactics Include:
  • Rule out medical conditions (eg thyroid)
  • Increase exercise: Such as, number of walks, varying the locations &  make sure you keep it fun. Exercise reduces stress and increases aerobic activity. It will promote endorphin release which helps to manage stress (if your dog does not like going for walks or gets very stressed at any stage it is important you find an alternative activity that he enjoys).
  • Organise a play date (if he has a special friend), or activity he enjoys regularly. Sign up for an activity which you can both enjoy together, such as a class.
  • Training is the most vital communication tool you have with each other, it strengthens your bond and by improving this communication between you, it will significantly reduce stress. As a result you will understand each other’s requests and this reduces the need for any frustration (which comes from a lack of being able to express yourself) & will greatly reduce any propensity you might have to use punishment.
Products That Might Help:
  • Free 8 hours of relaxing dog music link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OHEB41yRdU. The beats of this have been scientifically proven to reduce heart rate and calms dogs (and people)
  • Plug in dog appeasing pheromones (DAP) which mimics mother’s pheromones and has shown improvements to some dogs.
  • Feed a high quality unprocessed diet
  • Doggie sunglasses can help to reduce visual stress http://doggles.uk.com/
  • Thundershirt OR anxiety wraps he needs to be conditioned to wearing these so that he has builds a positive association with wearing them. They have been shown to reduce environmental stress in some dogs.
  • T-touch, massage and aromatherapy. The association of touch with a smell of lavender can be a strong enough stimulus to produce calmness at other times. This has to be done in a way that teaches the animal.
Write A List Of Stressors To Help You Identify His Triggers (example below)
  1. Strangers
  2. Things suddenly appearing in his eye line
  3. Unexpected events in his environment
  4. Shapes he is not used to
  5. Children
  6. Location
  7. Noises
  8. People and/or dogs walking past
  9. Riding in the car
  10. Threats to his resources
  11. Thunder
  12. Collar or equipment
  13. Verbal and/or physical punishment
  14. Owner stress
Behaviour Modification:
  • A common treatment approach would be to use respondent conditioning to elicit a newly conditioned emotional response.  See below for an explanation on how we can do this and the specifics that it entails. (below posters are all part of the essential resource pack)
  • It is important that we do not use flooding at any point in a procedure so distance is key and animals do not learn when they are stressed. Or if they do, it won’t be the desired type of positive association learning that we are trying to achieve.
  • Once you have the animal anticipating that great things happen in presence of this trigger, you can start to increase the intensity of exposure. You will still be using the high value item, making sure you take into consideration the timing and his motivation towards your value item.
  • Then introduce an incompatible behaviour which then becomes the trained behavioural response that is reinforced and maintained by the value of the reward.
Poster Showing How To Change A Behaviour & Put It Under Stimulus Control (SD)

changing behaviour cc cer

Poster Below Shows Optimal Conditions For Learning

Why Dogs Do Not Learn (3)

Poster Below Represent The Relationship Between Unconditioned & Conditioned Elicitors To Elicit Unconditioned Responses (please note, the conditioning gets weaker, the higher the order)


Patterns Of Behaviour:

These are sometimes heritable and often can be sporadic. There is some evidence (Karen Overall 2013) that Rottweilers who are affected by OCD tend to chase or run from things that are not there. It is thought that they hallucinate. However, breed specific behaviour is not deterministic. To distinguish normal from abnormal, the mere act of intensifying the behaviour, would give a good indication. So, for example, if the dog’s behaviour becomes less extreme by practicing it, then it is likely that the behaviour is not abnormal (this will have better results using behaviour modification techniques outlined in the posters above). Can you call the dog “out” of the behaviour? If the behaviour is out of context, he cannot be interrupted, the increased stimulation & exercise makes no difference and he is distressed, it is likely he has OCD (or CCD). This is regardless of breed. 

Typical Patterns:

OCD happens usually around the 18-24 month window or social maturity. The neurochemistry changes which are part of the unfolding of genetic material (as they mature) are thought to be the reason why there is an age related factor. The behaviour often presents around this time and if it is not treated, will decline. Dogs will get worse at different rates, some quickly and some slowly. Reinforcement of the abnormal behaviour is often a factor or trigger.

Management & Training :
  • Not allowing him to practice these behaviours as practice improves how well they are performed.
  • Interrupt and redirect the animal to a more pleasurable or contradictory behaviour that will not allow the OCD behaviour to occur. It must be enjoyable and of high enough value to interrupt the unwanted behaviour.
  • If the OCD is fully developed and you are unable to interrupt it, then it is possible that you might need to think about medication and work with a vet behaviourist.
  • Once you can interrupt the behaviour it is then time to start modifying the behaviour. For a light chasing condition it might be best to train an alternative behaviour that is desirable & this is rewarded.
  • Rewarding biofeedback cues (like breathing and relaxing) with something wonderful, will help to teach the dog how to alleviate his own stress and you are rewarding him for the physical signs, which match a more relaxed underlying physiological state. The reward and position will provide both pleasure and relief for him. It is important to start these types of techniques away from triggers and get them generalised to different contexts so that they can be proofed. They will not be effective if only used in the presence of something that initiates an activation reflex.
  • Prevention of the behaviour using environmental management and teaching a new behaviour which is placed under stimulus control. Then placing this new replacement behaviour on a reinforcement schedule which is suitable to maintain the behaviour.

The treatment plan for a compulsive disorder is often long-term. The earlier this is treated the better. Successful management is key. It is important to note, that there will often be ups and downs in this type of condition, but it is important to stay the course with this type of treatment protocol.


Published Articles:

Courses & Seminars:

We have developed the following resources to help educate people about dogs. This now includes a kids free colouring and word quiz book & we have over 25 posters now, all available in PDF, JPG & PNG: Essential Training Resource Guide

Some posters in our resource guide:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our Employers: Marmalade & Tango

positive reinforcement training in dogs

 Please Click On: Authors Biography, to find out more.

Email: info@simplybehaviour.com

To sign up to our newsletter through Facebook click here: Simply Behaviours Facebook Page