Obsessive behaviour – when is it a problem?

Question 8: What should you worry about with your obsessive dog?

If you have ever watched your collie chase the reflection of your watch face up the wall, while you laugh hysterically at your idiot dog, this post is about you and your dog.  I don’t know to what extent other breeds of dog do this, but I know most collies obsess about something.  Whether it is barking in a ridiculous way at possible squirrels in the garden or something else, collies love to fixate.  Here are some other examples of obsessive behaviour:

  • demanding you throw the ball/toy a MILLION times
  • barking at the doorbell/someone going past
  • chasing the cat
  • chasing cars
  • barking at/chasing cyclists and runners
  • chasing lights
  • chewing furniture/walls
  • ‘digging’ on the floor, as well as actual digging!

Sounds delightful doesn’t it?  Most collies don’t do ALL those things, but most do some of them.  Does it matter?

Collies are masters of self-stimulation.  That doesn’t mean quite what you think :p It means that they will find ways to amuse themselves.  It’s what we do when we are sitting waiting for something – we get out our phones and play a game or look at Facebook.  Collies do it too, only they aren’t able to manage a phone so they find a toy, or a light, or a squirrel or…  Something, anything to occupy their brain.

How to tackle obsessive behaviour

First of all, is it actually a problem?  If it’s a way of your dog keeping themselves occupied when they are left alone, or distracted when they can’t do something (such as at agility, when waiting for their turn), then it might be better that they shake a toy or chase a ball or follow a light than that they do something more destructive.

However, any obsession can become all consuming and take away mental energy from something more positive.  It can also result in your dog becoming so fixated on shaking a toy that they are not able to listen to your instructions.

The solution is easy in theory, less so in practice.

  1. Catch it.  Spotting what is going on is the first step.  Realising that they always do that, or that they persist in doing something, can help you to see that it doesn’t need to be like that.  It is entertaining watching your dog chase lights, but after a few hours, it really ought to stop.
  2. Distract it.  Simply, ask the dog to do something else.  Engage that huge brain in an alternative activity.  Playing with you can help to make them think.  Ask for simple commands to be followed and reward with some play and/or treats.  Provide toys to play with so that the house is not being chewed, or the cat chased, or whatever.
  3. Reward stillness.  I generally expect my dogs to be calm when I am calm.  Because I am present in their lives and yet generally still (working on my PC), they learn to settle.  If I had a dog that was fidgeting around me, I would encourage it to lie down and then reward.
  4. Contain it.  If all else fails, put the dog in a safe space for some down time.  Usually dogs are happy to go into a crate if they are fed in there and their bed is comfy. It should be completely covered, so that it is a comforting, quiet space.


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