The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 5

Life is full of surprises! As you might remember, we had first intervened with negative punishment (removal of attention) whenever Hadley started digging the floor. In the beginning, this strategy seemed to be successful. It looked like our hypothesis (The unwanted behavior is being being reinforced by owner attention) was valid! However, after a while, the number of floor digging/biting incidents increased, and our leaving of the room ceased to be effective. While it had originally interrupted the behavior, Hadley would now continue to dig and bite the floor even after we had left.

Nicole and I decided that, since our current intervention was obviously not working, we would try something different – we would interrupt and redirect whenever the behavior occured. We would continue to meticulously note down any instances of the OCD behavior occurring, and see if this brought a change. If after about four weeks, the rate and intensity of behavior hadn’t significantly decreased, we would look into psychopharmalogical treatment.

Well, before we could start this new intervention, Tom and I were going on vacation for almost 3 weeks. Hadley got to stay with my dad while we travelled to California and Hawaii. My dad is a dog person who hasn’t had a dog for a few years, so he was very happy to take care of the little rascal. He’s retired, lives in rural Austria, has a huge fenced yard including a brook and a pond, meadows and shrubbery and trees, birds and smells etc … A puppy paradise at his doorstep. Having suffered from dog withdrawal, dad went above and beyond in keeping Hadley happy and busy. He got to roam the yard at home, and go on long nature hikes in the surrounding meadows, forests and fields every day. And in between, dad trained Hadley to do all sorts of things – he worked on looking for and retrieving toys from out-of-sight places, and various obedience exercises – heeling, staying … Hadley was a busy pup alright!

When Hadley stays with us in Vienna, he gets to do a bit less – I’d love to do that much with him, but I don’t because Hadley is Tom’s dog (and co-parenting is hard). Tom has been working with him, but not to the extent I would or my dad did.

Now, the interesting thing: in the 3ish weeks that Hadley spent with my dad, the floor digging/biting behavior only happened twice. (My dad left the room both times, as we had instructed him to do – we wanted to begin the new intervention after we were back.)

After our vacation, I picked Hadley up and learned about what he and my dad had been up to, and how Hadley hadn’t had many fits of stereotypical behavior. The 2 conclusions I jumped to were:

1. either Hadley had indeed needed more mental and physical stimulation, and had finally gotten enough at my dad’s place so he didn’t need to engage in stereotypical behaviors anymore. OR

2. my dad had done so much with him and had let him enjoy chasing birds in the yard to such an extent that Hadley, whenever he went into the house, was just so exhausted that he pretty much passed out rather than having energy left to engage in any floor digging/biting.

In either case, I expected the behavior to return once we were back in Vienna and had settled into our old rhythm – unless from now on, Hadley received the same amount of mentally and physically stimulating activities as he had received with my dad.

Interestingly (and luckily!), I was wrong. Hadley’s stereotypical behaviors did not return. We have been back for 4 weeks now, and like in the three weeks that Hadley stayed with my parents, the behavior has only flared up 3 times since then. We interrupted Hadley each time, and he stopped. Hadley’s rhythm is back to normal, but without the floor digging/biting!

Why did Hadley spontaneously improve?

I have no idea! Maybe it had to do with brain development – maybe the wiring of Hadley’s adolescent brain, various hormon levels etc. simply changed away from an OCD tendency and to a more stable temperament? I don’t know if this is even possible – are there any scientists among my readers who might know? Hadley was born on July 1, 2015, so he’s 7.5 months old by now – an age where doggy brains get rewired a lot, and lots of physical and mental things change, just like in a human teenager.

Does it matter why Hadley got better? Not really. We’re just glad that he did! I’m thankful to the FDSA community for sharing your own experiences with OCD behaviors in your dogs, and sending us good thoughts! And I’m very glad for getting to consult Nicole Pfaller-Sadovsky, who spent many hours thinking through possible interventions with me. Last but not least, a big thank you also goes to Loretta Mueller, who looked into the OCD background and researched Hadley’s lines for genetic predispositions. (She didn’t find any OCD cases among Hadley’s ancestors.) Let’s hope that this post concludes Hadley’s floor digging diaries, and that there will be nothing else to report!

Read Parts 1 to 4 in the Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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