Repetitive behaviour in dogs: what are the risk factors?


Repetitive behaviours such as tail chasing, pacing, surface licking, self-biting and snapping at their reflection or shadow are more common in dogs belonging to first-time owners, those who live with larger families and those who exercise for less than one hour per day, researchers have found.

The survey of Finnish dog-owners also showed that sex, age, breed, sterilisation status and other behavioural problems such as aggressiveness and ADHD-like behaviour may make a dog more likely to show repetitive behaviours.

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The findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We found that repetitive behaviour was more common in male dogs as well as in sterilised or castrated dogs,” said doctoral researcher Sini Sulkama from the University of Helsinki. “In addition, repetitive symptoms were more common in young dogs, while they again became more prevalent in ageing dogs.”

In senior dogs, repetitive behaviour may result from a progressive neurological syndrome known as canine cognitive dysfunction, or dog dementia.

The researchers also discovered a link between repetitive behaviour and the owner’s dog experience. Repetitive symptoms are more common in dogs whose owners have not previously owned a dog compared to the dogs of owners with previous experience with dogs.

It’s not clear why this is, but stress is known to increase the likelihood of repetitive behaviour and it’s possible that more experienced dog owners are better able to provide their dogs with a less stressful setting. Or it could be that inexperienced owners just don’t notice repetitive behaviour early enough, making it easier for such behaviour to become permanent.

Looking at different breeds, the German Shepherd, the Chinese Crested Dog and the Welsh Corgi Pembroke were among those in which repetitive behaviour was found to be more common. Interestingly, there were also breed-specific differences between repetitive symptoms. For example, Border Collies and other herding dogs have a high predisposition to compulsive staring and snatching at ‘invisible’ flies, while the most typical repetitive behaviour in Staffordshire Bull Terriers is tail chasing.

“Severe repetitive behaviour may significantly impair canine health as well as the interaction between the dog and the owner,” Sulkama added. “This is why identifying risk factors can benefit both dogs and their owners.”

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