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

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 4

… in which we decide to go back to the baseline.

I talked to Nicole on Thursday, and we looked at my latest observations to see how the behavior had developed:


Blue: stereotypic behavior
Orange: DRA (FI 15min)
Grey: DRI (sitting or standing in front of human and making eye contact)

My notes and the graph showed that our current intervention was not being successful. While it had looked very promising in the beginning, the floor digging/biting behaviour had quickly returned, and shown up in new contexts. It was time to change our strategy and try something new. However, before I go into the further plan, let me share with you the things that have changed about the behavior.

Changes in the topography of the behavior

Originally, i.e. during the baseline, the floor digging/biting had lasted much longer – up to several minutes. Now, it often lasts less than a minute. Originally, the behavior had included more vocalization – now, the intensity of whining while biting had decreased. However, the rate of the behavior – the amount of times it occurred during a day – had increased.

Discovering new functions

While the behavior had originally appeared to only be reinforced by owner attention, it had soon turned up in new contexts. The fact that the originally successful intervention of nonexclusion time-out and response cost had stopped being effective showed that the behavior was multiply determined, that is to say it served more than just one function. We had already identified demand avoidance as an additional function in the context of food puzzles. In the last days, yet another function turned up: the floor digging/biting behavior appeared to be a displacement activity. Hadley has shown an increasing interest in birds. He’ll watch them fly through the living room windows, trace them with his eyes, and sometimes start panting and whining, scratching the glass doors and eventually start floor digging/biting as a displacement activity.

An interest in birds and having fun running after them, of course, is to be expected in adolescent dogs. I’m actually a fan of this behavior – in Phoebe, I used it effectively as a reinforcer when she was a puppy. I’d ask her to perform a well-known behavior, click and let her run at a flock of pigeons on the ground as a reinforcer. This was a nice application of the Premack principle: “high-probability behavior reinforces low-probability behavior” (Chance 453). Chasing pigeons was a high-probability behavior for Phoebe. Making eye contact was a low-probability behavior. By means of asking or waiting for eye contact and then reinforcing it with pigeon chasing, Phoebe’s “Watch me!” got stronger and her desire to chase pigeons eventually decreased. Furthermore, it was yet another lesson in “You do what I want you to do, and then you get to do what you want to do. There’s no conflict of interest between us. Cooperation gets you what you want!”

So Hadley’s interest in birds is neither surprising nor a bad thing as such. However, the way he deals with the fact that he can’t chase the birds he sees through the window is concerning. Other dogs might bark or jump at the window. Hadley once more resorts to floor digging/biting, and that is the concerning part.

The way he displays his interest in birds also seems like a strong herding behavior to me – the eye stalk part of the predatory motor pattern. I asked a friend to recommend a good herding trainer, and I suggested Tom and Hadley try and see what Hadley thinks about sheep. This might be something for the two of them to do on a weekly basis, and it might give Hadley an outlet for his predatory motor patterns. He is half a year old now and, being a working line BC whose father works on sheep, should be ready for meeting his first sheep.

Looking for patterns: is there a connection between the floor digging/biting behavior and the amount of enrichment/mental stimulation/training/exercise during a particular day?

I have kept an eye on how the rate of the behavior changed in relation to what we did with Hadley on a particular day. After all, two scenarios were possible: Scenario 1: Hadley might show the floor digging/biting behavior particularly often when there was a lot of down-time and little training, walking, playing or mental stimulation on a particular day. Scenario 2: Hadley might show the floor digging/biting behavior particularly often when there was a lot of training, walking, playing or mental stimulation on a particular day.

However, neither Nicole nor Tom nor I could discern a pattern. There were days with a lot of physical activity and/or mental stimulation and enrichment when the rate of the behavior was high, and there were days with little activity and stimulation when the rate of the behavior was high. At the same time, there were days where a lot was going on, but the rate of the behavior was low, and there were days where little was going on, and the rate of the behavior was high. We couldn’t make out a pattern.

My interpretation so far

From what I have observed since starting to work with Nicole, the floor digging/biting behavior seems to be (among other things) auto-reinforcing, and it seems to be a behavior that finds new outlets and contexts to creep up in. I’m sure that with Nicole’s help, we’ll get a grip on it. However, we might still have a long journey ahead of us.

Further strategy

Hadley will stay with my parents for two weeks while Tom and I are on vacation. Yey, LA and Hawaii! I’ve instructed my parents to stick with the current strategy for now: leave the room as soon as floor digging/biting occurs.

Once we get back, we will go back to the baseline and observe what happens for about 10 days. That is to say: I will stop DRL and DRA (FI 15min), which we didn’t do during the baseline. I’ll still reinforce the incompatible behaviors of politely asking for attention by means of sitting or standing in front of us and making eye contact, since I’ve been doing “sit to say please” from the very beginning of Hadley’s time with us. However, whenever the floor digging/biting happens, now we will immediately interrupt and redirect Hadley the way we used to in the baseline. We will take notes, and it will be interesting to learn what happens: will the rate of the behavior increase, decrease, or stay the same?

Stay tuned for part 5 of the potentially obsessive floor digging riddle …

Read Part 1, 2 and 3 of Hadley’s Floor Digging Diaries:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003.