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?
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.
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.
It is key when managing a compulsive disorder that all triggers to the behavior be identified and eliminated if possible. If not possible, then counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques can be used to manage the dog's response to the trigger.
In this case, access to the ball is controllable for the owners. Because continued access to the ball will make it difficult to redirect this dog's compulsion, it would be wise to discontinue play with the ball. The owners then need to absolutely resist any attempts on the dog's part to get them to play using the ball. If they resist but then eventually give in, they will be reinforcing the behavior at a higher level, making it much more difficult for the behavior to subside (extinguish).
The owners should also offer the dog a variety of other activities to replace ball play. Frequent walks, regular training bouts, and play with a variety of alternate objects would be a good beginning. These objects should obviously not be similar to any type of ball. If the dog gains access to other objects that are similar to a ball, then the owners should consider keeping a drag leash on the dog and use this to quickly interrupt the behavior and then redirect by engaging it in a one- to two-minute session of a series of simple obedience exercises with the use of palatable treats as reinforcers given freely for each repetition of the behaviors.
The owners might also need to consider the use of antianxiety medication if the dog's degree of compulsion persists in spite of these recommendations. I would begin with clomipramine at a dose of 1 to 4 mg/kg twice a day (start at the lower end of the dose range and increase the dose gradually as needed). Fluoxetine at 0.5 to 1 mg/kg once a day would be another choice if you cannot use clomipramine (previous history of seizures or poor response to the drug in the past). A dose of 0.5 mg is a good starting point because of potential anorexia and sedation as well as idiosyncratic increase in anxiety in some dogs. You can increase the upper end of the dose range to 2 mg/kg.
Sedation and anorexia are common, mild, and temporary side effects to these medications that often are relieved with time (three to four weeks) or a reduction in dose. Be sure to perform a baseline complete blood count, serum chemistry profile, and thyroid panel (a total thyroxine concentration with or without a thyroid-stimulating hormone concentration). Then perform a complete blood count and serum chemistry profile four to six weeks after beginning the medication.
In the long-run
Be aware that dogs with a compulsive disorder may need lifelong therapy in terms of medication and consistent application of the behavior modification plan to achieve an adequate reduction in clinical signs.
John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB
Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants
Carol Stream, Ill.