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Q. One of my patients, a Labrador retriever, seems to be obsessed with his toy ball. When the owners sit down, the dog incessantly begs to play with the ball. What advice should I give the owners as to how to redirect this behavior?
A. I suspect that this dog's behavior may be compulsive in nature. Compulsive disorder in dogs can present itself in a wide variety of ways. Common signs include tail chasing, spinning, flank sucking, imaginary fly snapping, and shadow and light chasing.
Compulsive behaviors are often normal activities related to oral (e.g. excessive grooming, self-chewing, flank sucking) or locomotor activities (e.g. spinning or tail chasing). These activities are displayed out of normal context—that is, at times when it would ordinarily not be expected for the pet to engage in the behavior. In addition, the behavior occurs to the exclusion of other normal daily activities such as eating, exercise, or other forms of play.
Dr. John Ciribassi
What's behind the behavior
It is thought that compulsive disorder has as its basis abnormalities in neurotransmitter function (serotonin or norepinephrine) as well as the possibility that it is self-reinforcing as a result of release of endogenous opioids. Based on this information, it is likely that the incessant ball play you describe is a compulsive disorder because of the amount of time the dog engages in the activity and how focused the dog apparently is when playing.
Before beginning behavior management for most forms of compulsive disorders, be certain there are no medical reasons for the behavior such as seizures, other forms of central nervous system disease, or spinal pathology.
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