What you are seeing above is an example of a stereotypic behaviour/compulsive behaviour as exhibited by one of my rescue dogs, Beanie the 13 year old Yorkshire Terrier. Compulsive behaviours are repetitive actions exhibited by dogs that at first may appear quirky, or even funny, but in actuality they can be a genuine cause for concern and sure sign of significant psychological distress.
Compulsive behaviours can be due to chemical imbalances in the brain, but are usually picked up by dogs who are not getting enough mental stimulation for their needs and/or cannot satisfy behavioural needs that are instinctive to them as dogs. It is most often seen in kennelled dogs or those under significant stress. These behaviours can be self-mutilating and when reinforced and rehearsed over a long period of time they can become extremely difficult to get rid of.
In Beanies case, at the age of 8 she came home to us in a physically neglected state; matted, riddled with flea dirt, a mouth full of rotten teeth, her muscles had even atrophied. Behaviourally she was very shut down though not fearful. She was a very endearing, but troubled dog.
A few months after she had been home with us I began noticing that the bottom of the walls and doors would be wet, with a puddle of drool underneath, when I came home. There was also a patch of paint mysteriously missing from the wall, right at her height. I videoed her whilst I was out one day and found she was licking the walls the entire time. The behaviour began to spread, she would also resort to it when the other two resident dogs were playing, when there were guests round, or when we were standing up.
A thorough vet check showed nothing – including no gastrointestinal issues that can be a trigger. Even when the rotten teeth had been taken out entirely, she still exhibited the behaviour. So it may have been a behaviour that began as a coping mechanism for pain, or boredom, or some other source of stress in her previous homes, but it was important to focus on the triggers now. From analysing the triggers it became clear she was suffering from separation anxiety and also anxiety around too much stimulation or noise going on around her.
As is always the case with behavioural problems, management was key. We had to block her access to the walls so she couldn’t ingest any more paint. Cover cupboard doors with blankets. Ensure nothing was left around the house that would trigger the behaviour (anything upright- e.g. cardboard boxes). Finally, we had to keep stimulation in the house as minimal as possible including lights, sounds, behaviour of the other dogs, even smells.
Interrupting the behaviour without inadvertently rewarding it was also key. There was a risk of the behaviour maintaining if every time she engaged in it I gave her attention.
A behaviour modification programme had to be worked through that included a lot of mental stimulation, scent work, desensitising her to the triggers of the behaviour in a controlled manner (e.g. being alone), as well as gentle walks to build her muscles up. It took a number of months, if not over a year, for us to be able to show Bean how to deal with stress in a healthier way. Even now (4 years later) when flustered she can be seen walking up to the kitchen cupboards, facing it, then turning away to engage in something else. She only ever licks food items now. Her separation anxiety is a significant thing of the past and she is physically fit and healthy.
Beanie is just one case. Her triggers and behaviour are unique to her, as much as her personal history is. There is no “one size fits all” programme for compulsive behaviours, it all depends on the underlying emotions that are driving the repetitive, seemingly functionless behaviour.