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Examples of stereotypical behaviors in dogs can help paint a clearer picture of what may be truly going on with affected dogs.

Perhaps it's the first time that you have stumbled upon the term "stereotypical" or maybe you have just started to study animal behavior. Maybe, your dog has been even diagnosed with a stereotypical behavior.

Regardless, of why you may need examples of stereotypical behaviors in dogs, let's face it: it's always empowering learning something new about our canine companions!

A Need for Enrichment

Despite being domesticated, and spending a good portion of their time resting, dogs have a strong need for variety and stimulation in their lives. As the saying goes: "variety is the spice of life."

Impoverished housing environments that fail to provide sufficient stimulation risk leading to welfare issues and the manifestation of abnormal behaviors as coping strategies. 

In some dogs it is therefore possible for them to develop functionless behaviors which in behavioral terms are known as ‘stereotypies.’

What are Stereotypies in Dogs Behavior?

Stereotypical behavior consists of repetitive behavior patterns that ultimately have no specific function. In other words, these behaviors seemingly appear to have no obvious goal. 

These aimless behaviors are often observed in captive animals, such as bears, wild felines, wild canines, and primates when raised in impoverished environments such as zoos.

Among dogs, they can be seen when confined in restricted spaces such as when spending too much time in kennels (as it happens at the dog shelter) or when raised in cages as it happens in puppy mills. 

Stereotypies are also often found among dogs living in places that forces them to ensure with fairly consistent, high levels of stress, as it may happen with laboratory research dogs or dogs destined to living chained outdoors with no chance for  socializing.

However, not all dogs who go on to develop stereotypies have a history of living in impoverished environments. 

Even dogs living in “ideal” conditions,  may go on to exhibit stereotypical behaviors such as compulsive ball chasing. 

Indeed, in some cases, overstimulation may be the underlying culprit, with the affected dogs exhibiting abnormal reactions to stimuli. Basically, it all boils down to errors in how their brains process these stimuli.

Circling is an example of stereotypical behavior in dogs. 

Circling is an example of stereotypical behavior in dogs. 

Examples of Stereotypical Behaviors in Dogs

Following are several stereotypical behaviors taking place in dogs:

Pacing

Pacing back and forth is found to occur more frequently in kenneled dogs than the unkenneled ones.

This further proves the theory that impoverished environments accompanied by boredom may easily lead to the onset of stereotypical behaviors.  

Tail chasing

Many dogs chase their tails, but if this behavior happens to go unchecked, it can grow out of hand and enter the terrain of stereotypical behaviors. 

It may start out of boredom, from frustration of living in a restricted space or perhaps from an underlying medical conditions such as irritation of the dog's anal glands. 

Next thing you know, the behavior starts happening more and more without an obvious reason. 

Tail chasing can be seen in a variety of dogs, but certain breeds may be predisposed such as Australian cattle dogs, pitbull terriers and German shepherds. 

Circling

Dogs running in circles go hand in hand with dogs chasing their tails. They are both potential compulsive behaviors that may be challenging to get rid of. 

They both stem from some psychological disorder being either boredom, fear, frustration or anxiety.

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Self-Grooming

 It may just casually happen one day that a bored dog discovers a new form of entertainment; licking his paws or there might be an itch. Soon paw licking becomes his default behavior for when he has nothing better to do.

At other times, paw licking may become a coping mechanism for when the dog feels stressed, anxious or frustrated.

This repeated licking can get out of hand and may then lead to what's known as an acral lick dermatitis (ALD), also known as an "acral lick granuloma."

Shadow/Light Chasing

For a good reason many dog trainers advise dog owners not to use laser lights with their dogs: the light-chasing behavior can easily get out of hand.

 Of course, this doesn't happen with all dogs, but some dogs are more predisposed to compulsive disorders such as light chasing. 

Did you know? According to a study, a dog suffering from compulsive shadow chasing was found to have alterations in the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system, which is in line with human and animal obsessive compulsive disorder studies.

The onset of compulsive behavior in dogs generally occurs when dogs are under 12 months of age.

Predisposed breeds include Border Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Rottweilers, and Wire-Haired Fox Terriers, all breeds known for having high prey drive.

The Addicting Nature 

Repetitive behavior is considered stereotypic when it becomes excessive. But what makes these behaviors become so addicting to allow them to put roots and repeat over and over to the point of becoming compulsive and persisting in situations outside the original context?

Well, for starters, such behaviors are often maintained by the fact that they're ultimately self-reinforcing, possibly due to providing an outlet, a coping mechanism (if you will) for boredom, frustration or anxiety.

Stereotypical behavior may therefore serve the function of reducing arousal in affected dogs. This has been proven by several studies in humans and domestic animals which have shown that repetitive behaviors help decreases the heart rate (Seo et al., 1998).

On top of this, in some cases, as it happens with excessive licking leading to acral lick granulomas, the outcome is the release endorphins, which can be particularly soothing, reduce anxiety, and help suppress the perception of pain.

Did you know? Not all stereotypies are destined to becoming compulsive! For sake of clarity, it is therefore has been suggested that it may be more accurate to refer to these behaviors as "abnormal repetitive behaviors" considering that they may stem from environmental causes, which may be transient and variable, at least until proven otherwise. 

Importance of Prevention

As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Preventing stereotypical behavior in dogs from taking place is fundamental, considering that once established, these behaviors become more and more challenging to eradicate. 

Following are some preventive steps:

  • Ensure the dog's needs for socialization, play, mental stimulation and exercise are met. 
  • Evaluate whether overstimulation may be a factor
  • Dogs should be monitored for early detection. This can be done through recordings that are played back and observed using fast forward function. 
  • Some facilities use saw dust on the floor to identify proof of circling or pacing back and forth by looking at foot prints. 
  • Dogs showing stereotypical tendencies should not be bred. 
  • Challenging cases may require behavior intervention (consult with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist) along with possibly medications. 

Concluding Thoughts 

As seen, stereotypical behaviors in dogs can be seen in cases of space restriction, excessive isolation, under-stimulation but even over-stimulation. 

Stereotypical behaviors may therefore be associated with emotions such as prolonged boredom, stress or anxiety, frustration and conflict. 

As time goes by, the behavior attains a strong reinforcement history, possibly, courtesy of the release of endorphins, with the end result of becoming more and more ingrained, to the point where the dog may be completely non-responsive to the owner's attempts to interrupt the behavior (as described earlier in the dog circling around trees). 

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