Animal Behavior Clinic

Ask the Animal Behaviorist

(patients’ names have been changed to protect their privacy)

Dear Doctor,

Six months ago, we purchased a four-month-old Bull Terrier from a reputable breeder. In the past month, Sera has begun chasing her tail numerous times per day. When engaged in tail chasing, she can’t be distracted and doesn’t seem to know we exist. We’re afraid she will injure herself and are distraught by the change in our relationship with Sera. She can become aggressive towards us if we attempt to interrupt her when she is in the midst of a particularly serious bout of tail chasing. We called the breeder, but she said she’d never heard of such behavior other than as playful puppy behavior. She indicated that it was our fault because we didn’t provide Sera with an adequate environment and appropriate socialization opportunities. After speaking with other Bull Terrier owners, we learned that tail chasing may be a genetic problem in the breed. We feel that the breeder has been dishonest with us and is wrongfully blaming us for Sera’s behavior. Who’s at fault?

Concerned owner of tail chasing dog

Dear Concerned,

The truth is, it’s impossible to point the finger of blame at any one person in particular. Behavior is a complex interaction of genetics and environmental input. We all have genes that are not “turned on” until they receive some signal from the internal or external environment. In Sera’s case, she may have had the genetic potential for developing compulsive tail chasing behavior, but did not show the behavior until she reached puberty and/or experienced some form of environmental stress. In the case of compulsive tail chasing in dogs, “environmental stress” can be very benign and may involve anything that increases Sera’s level of arousal or anxiety. Stress can involve something as benign as the sound of running water to a ‘traumatic’ event such as being boarded at a kennel (separated from her social group and housed in novel environment). Various aspects of body chemistry are affected by exposure to stressors in the environment and such changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels can affect gene expression (which genes are “turned on and which are turned off”). Thus, a dog may have the genes for tail chasing, but never show the behavior because the genes remain inactivated.

On the other hand, another dog may possess the requisite genes for tail chasing and with the “right” environmental exposure, the genes may be activated, thus triggering the dog to display a compulsive behavior or other unwanted behavior. It is entirely possible that the breeder never experienced tail chasing in her breeding line, even though the male and female carry the genes for compulsive tail chasing. Perhaps
as individuals they did not contain the entire genetic complement and/or they were not exposed to an environmental situation that activated the latent genes.

In any case, it’s important to recognize that neither you nor the breeder are specifically “at fault.” It would benefit Sera if you could both work together towards a resolution of not only Sera’s behavioral problem, but also the behavioral genetic condition in the breed as a whole.

Compulsive disorders do not resolve on their own and are complicated animal behavioral problems that generally require professional intervention. We strongly encourage you to seek assistance from a qualified animal behaviorist to help you develop an appropriate behavior modification program and provide pharmacological recommendations to facilitate the success of your training efforts. When treating compulsive disorders in pets at Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, we recommend identifying the stressor or environmental trigger and if possible, avoiding exposing your dog to the trigger. If avoidance is not possible, then desensitization and counterconditioning methods may be used to acclimate your dog to the presence of this “stressful” trigger. Environmental enrichment and increased aerobic exercise can also be very beneficial in the “healing” process. In severe cases, pharmacological intervention is often necessary in order to allow the dog to respond to changes in management and behavior modification efforts. Many dogs with compulsive disorders do not remain on medication long term, but typically a minimum of 6-12 months of drug therapy is necessary to satisfactorily resolve the problem.