Obsessive dog behaviors and dog fixations can become as seriously harmful as addictions are for humans. When we laugh at a dog that is fanatically mad over a toy, a bone, a shaft of light, a game of fetch, or the neighbor’s cat, it’s like laughing at someone who is a falling-down drunk.
Sure, his behavior looks comical at the moment, but the truth is, he’s truly got no physical or psychological control over himself.
Someday, he may really hurt himself and those around him. That’s exactly what obsessive behavior is to a dog – an addiction. An interesting fact is that the term addiction derives from the Latin word addicere, to sentence. When we allow our dogs’ habits to progress to the point of obsession and/or addiction, we are actually “sentencing” them to a very frustrated, unhappy existence.
Identifying obsessive dog behaviors
A normal dog plays well with others – you, your kids, and other dogs. Balanced dogs can like one toy or game more than another, but it’s still a game; it’s not a life or death situation. An obsessive dog will take such games very seriously. Her playing will have a whole different level of intensity to it.
When a dog is becoming obsessive, her face and her body language will visibly change. Her body will stiffen. A glaze will form over her eyes – her pupils become fixated and you can’t distract her gaze. It appears almost as if she’s in a trance. She’s entered a zone in which there is no lightheartedness, no relaxation, and no joy in play. Think of a gambling addict at a slot machine, mechanically pulling the one-armed bandit over and over again, fixated on it but clearly not having fun. Obsession is not a happy place to be. It’s a zone in which an animal is blind to everything around her that should make her happy.
Preventing obsessive dog behaviors
One step to preventing obsessive behavior is to monitor the intensity of your dog’s play. I try to supervise the intensity of my own kids’ play – because between them, one of them is going to be faster, or one is going to be physically stronger. If I can keep them at an intensity level that is mild, they can’t hurt each other physically or emotionally. But they can still enjoy themselves. The point is, your dog must understand that there are limits to any game – whether it be playing with a favorite toy, or stalking the squirrels in the backyard. Those limits are determined by you, not by her.
Correcting obsessive dog behaviors
Make sure your dog is properly exercised and is not living with pent-up energy. Most of the time an obsession is something that the dog has discovered can work as an outlet for anxiety, frustration, or suppressed energy.
Correct obsessive/possessive behavior immediately: this is where the importance of knowing your dog comes in. You must learn to recognize the physical cues and energy signs that your dog is getting into an obsessive state, and stop her at level one before she escalates to level ten. Your job should be at that very moment to correct the dog, to bring her to the highest level of submission, keeping the toy or object of obsession (if that’s what it is) next to her until she moves away from it voluntarily. Most people will snatch a toy away and say, “No!” By doing this, they can escalate the obsession into a higher level – making the object prey, and making you a potential target. Your dog may not want to bite a family member, but she’s in a state now where she can’t stop on her own. Remember, dogs don’t rationalize.
Excerpted from the New York Times bestseller “Be the Pack Leader: