The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 3

High time for another update! When I wrote part 2 of this series, it seemed pretty clear that Hadley’s floor-digging and biting was being reinforced by Tom’s and my attention.

Initial intervention and success

In our initial intervention, we reinforced incompatible behaviors (sitting or standing in front of human and making eye contact) with attention (talking, petting), and used a combination of nonexclusion time-out und response cost in order to extinguish the floor digging/biting: we immediately left the room as soon as Hadley started engaging in the behavior, and only came back after he had stopped. Hadley reliably stopped floor digging/biting when we left, and the behavior occurred less and less often. We were ready to celebrate a successful intervention. Nicole and I agreed that Tom and I would keep doing what we had been doing. If owner attention was the sole reinforcer for the floor digging/biting behavior, it should soon disappear altogether as long as we stuck with the current strategy.


The rate of the stereotypic behavior increases again

That’s what we did: we kept reinforcing incompatible behaviors and alternative behaviors on an FI 15min schedule, and whenever there was floor digging/biting, we left.

However, things turned out to not be as simple as we had hoped they would be. After the initial decrease of the behavior, its intensity and rate increased again. Hadley showed the floor digging/biting behavior in new situations, and even when he was alone in a room – something that had not previously happened.

The new situation the floor digging/biting occurred in was when I confronted Hadley with food puzzles. This was quite surprising, since food puzzles had been something I had given him from his first week with us : frozen Kongs, kibble in a cardboard box or egg carton, treats in an empty plastic bottle, kibble hidden under various containers, pillows, blankets etc.

Hadley used to have fun with most of these food puzzles. He destroyed cardboard boxes, opened plastic boxes I had hidden treats in, and rolled his bottles around on the floor to make food fall out. I am a big fan of home-made food puzzles because they are an inexpensive and fast way to provide our dogs with enrichment – a simple way to fight boredom, learn to manipulate a variety of objects, problem-solve independently, and have the dog experience that his own behavior controls what happens in his environment. Well, at least that’s what happens with most dogs.


Here is Hadley searching for food on the bed – we don’t have a snuffle mat, so we make bed-sized food toys instead!





However, Hadley’s demeanor around food toys started to change. In the last weeks, he would more and more often just sit in front of the food puzzle, stare at it, maybe paw it or nose-touch it once, quickly retreat, start barking at it, and then engage in floor digging/biting in front of the toy. This left me a bit puzzled: Hadley had grown up with food toys, and now he would react this way even with the kind he had already successfully solved in the past! Was it the hormones of adolescence that had made him forget things he had been comfortable and successful with in the past?

Nicole explained to me that this behavior is called demand avoidance: I demand that Hadley solve the food puzzle. He can’t; he “escapes” by means of floor digging/biting. While we were surprised that Hadley showed this behavior, I agreed with Nicole’s advice to reduce the amount of food puzzles Hadley would get, stick to the ones I am sure he can solve, and always stay with him when he works on them so I can help him in case he is having trouble. However, if he does start floor digging/biting in front of a food puzzle again, I will immediately and without comment remove the food puzzle.

Here is the updated graph Nicole made for me after our last consult. You can see that the floor digging/biting (blue) increased again after its initial decrease.


Graph 3

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

What was going on here? Why was the floor digging/biting not disappearing, but increasing again? Why was it creeping up in new situations? Several things might contribute to this. In the next weeks of observation, we will hopefully learn more.


  1. We might be dealing with an extinction burst: “a sudden increase in the rate of behavior during the early stages of extinction” (Chance 451). If this is the case, the floor digging/biting should decrease after its short increase, and eventually disappear completely, as long as we stick to the original plan.


  1. Very often, OCD spectrum disorders are multiply determined: as Kennedy et al. (560) suggest, “individual topographies of behavior can serve more than one function.” In Hadley’s case, one function seems to be to get our attention. After all, removal of all attention (leaving the room) had initially significantly decreased the rate of the behavior. Another function, it seems, might be task avoidance – this is what has been happening with the food toy. Now we will wait and see if and what other functions creep up. We will stick with the current plan until January 8th. On January 8th, I will consult with Nicole again to determine the further course of action: continue as before, or maybe go back to the baseline, i.e. interrupt the behavior whenever and as soon as it is occurring, and see if and how this affects the floor digging/biting behavior.


  1. As Nicole explained to me, certain dog breeds – among them Border Collies – are born with above-average dopamine levels. The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine leads to the experience of pleasure and reward. This might make abnormal repetitive behaviors auto-reinforcing and more likely to develop in various situations in these breeds (see also Arons & Shoemaker and Gadbois & Reeve – two sources Nicole pointed out to me).


As you can see, we haven’t been bored … We’re still trying to get rid of the floor digging/biting. But we’re working on it, keeping notes, and of course we won’t give up until we’ve reached our goal, which is a happy, stereotypy-free Border Collie. I will keep you updated …





Arons, C.D., Shoemaker, W.J. (1992) The distribution of catecholamines and beta-endorphin in the brains of three behaviorally distinct breeds of dogs and their F1 hybrids. Brain Research, 594(1):

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

Gadbois, S., Reeve, C. (2014) Canine olfaction: scent, sign and situation, in Horwitz, A. (Ed) Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior

Kennedy, Craig H., Meyer, Kim A., Knowles, Tanya, and Shukla, Smita (2000): Analyzing the multiple functions of stereotypical behavior for students with autism: implications for assessment and treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Number 4, Winter 2000. 22, 33, p. 559-571.


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

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 2

… in which our hypothesis is confirmed and we see some interesting video proof.

As you might remember, Hadley had me worried with his obsessive floor digging and biting, which appeared to be getting worse rather than better over time despite redirection. I implemented the changes Nicole and I had agreed on during our last consult (see Part 1). Here is a summary of my observations from November 30 to December 2, 2015: Summary Part 2 (pdf with video links).

What we hypothesized and how we intervened – a quick recap: 

In my last post on this topic, we had developed the hypothesis that floor digging/biting was being reinforced by owner attention:

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> Tom and Chrissi look at and talk to Hadley.

In order to test this hypothesis, we were going to change the consequence of the unwanted behavior by means of P-:

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> all people leave the room.

If floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, leaving the room should function as negative punishment and extinguish the unwanted behavior. Furthermore, if floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, it should never happen when Hadley was home alone. If, on the other hand, the behavior was self-stimulating, it should continue after I left the room, and also occur when Hadley was home alone.

What we learned and what this means:

In the three-day observation period, there were 7 incidents of floor digging/biting. I reacted by means of immediately leaving the room every time, and recorded 6 of the incidents. By means of having a camera pointed at Hadley, I could see what happened after I left. As you might remember from the last videos I posted, when I used to stay in the room and observe, the floor digging/biting tended to go on for up to several minutes. Here’s an example of what happened when I left – watch this video if you only want to watch one, since it has a better camera angle than most of the others:

Further video evidence for the effectiveness of P- for Hadley’s floor digging/biting:

In each one of the 6 incidents I have on video, Hadley immediately stopped the unwanted behavior. This confirms our hypothesis: his floor digging/biting was really reinforced by owner attention! Believe it or not, but this made me very happy. No other scenario was as easy to resolve as this one! Plus, Hadley was young and we had caught it early. There would most likely be no need for meds, and we should get a grip on his obsessive floor digging/biting in the course of a few weeks.

Differential Reinforcement from November 30 to December 2, 2015:

When using negative punishment, it is advisable to simultaneously strengthen alternative behaviors in order to avoid creating a “behavior vacuum” where no functional replacement to the unwanted behavior is available to obtain the desired reinforcer. In Hadley’s case, the reinforcer is attention (talking, eye contact, petting). While weakening the unwanted behavior, we strengthen a replacement behavior that will allow him to ask for attention in an appropriate way: sitting or standing in front of me and seeking eye contact.

In the pdf summary above, you find the number of times I reinforced specific behaviors or the number of times specific things happened. Here’s what this means.

Table “Wanted behavior”:

Date, Time: refers to the date and exact time the session started.

Duration: refers to the duration of the respective session.

FI: refers to the schedule of reinforcement used during the session. FI stands for fixed interval and the time stated defines how many seconds or minutes have to pass until reinforcement becomes available. For example, FI 15min means that reinforcement becomes available after 15 minutes. When my timer rings after 15 minutes and Hadley happens to be showing one of the alternative behaviors I have defined, he will be reinforced.

The alternative behaviors I am reinforcing on a FI schedule are: “being awake and doing things by himself” – e.g. lying on the floor/couch/rug/dog bed/crate, walking around, playing with a toy by himself, chewing a chew toy, drinking water.

The reinforcement used for this is eye contact and talking to Hadley in a calm voice for at least 5 seconds.

The DRA column refers to the number of times I reinforced alternative behavior in the respective session. This number does not always equal the duration divided by the interval because I did not reinforce when Hadley was asleep or playing with one of the other dogs.

The DRI column refers to the number of times I reinforced behaviors incompatible with the unwanted behavior in the respective session. We defined two incompatible behaviors: sitting and standing in front of me and seeking eye contact. These behaviors were reinforced with eye contact, cheerful talking and petting for at least 5 seconds.

The DRL column (DRL = differential reinforcement of lower-intensity or lower-rate behavior) refers to the number of times I reinforced the unwanted behavior occurring at lower intensity. In our case, lower intensity was defined as stretching and/or rolling on the ground/couch. The videos in the first observation phase (see Part 1) had shown that these behaviors often preceded the unwanted behavior of digging/biting the floor. So in phase 2, whenever I caught Hadley stretching and/or rolling on the couch/ground, I reinforced him by means of calmly walking over, talking to him in a calm voice and petting.

Let us take a closer look at DRL, since reinforcing part of a problematic behavior – even though at a lower right – might seem counterintuitive at first sight. What’s its purpose? DRL procedures are useful for behaviors that are generally acceptable, but occur too often or in an exaggerated form. In Hadley’s case, rolling on the ground and stretching are perfectly acceptable dog behaviors. However, what they tend to turn into in Hadley’s case (floor digging/biting) is an unwanted behavior. By means of reinforcing lower rates or intensities of an unwanted behavior, we avoid the need for punishment: when I pet Hadley, who is rolling on his back, he half-closes his eyes and his muscles relax in response to my belly rubs. If I did not walk over and reinforce this lower-intensity behavior, he might start floor digging/biting, which would result in me leaving the room, i.e. negative punishment. DRL procedures, then, are an effective means of working with certain kinds of unwanted behaviors and an alternative for punishment. (1)

The P- column (P- = negative punishment) refers to the number of times I left the room as a consequence to Hadley’s floor digging/biting in the respective interval. Since we had established that the unwanted behavior was being maintained by attention, leaving the room turned out to be an effective means of negative punishment. My videos show that Hadley immediately stopped floor digging/biting whenever I left the room.

Check out the video above for an example.

Table “Unwanted Behavior”:

Whenever the unwanted behavior (floor digging/biting) occurred during the observation period, I also made a note in this table. As you can see from the left column, it occurred a total of 7 times in the 3-day period.

The Date, Time column specifies the exact date and time the unwanted behavior occurred.

Die “P- successful?” column shows if my leaving the room interrupted the unwanted behavior. In all 6 cases I recorded, the unwanted behavior stopped immediately. Instance #2 has a question mark because the camera crashed and I could not review the video.

Table “Alone Condition”:

On each of the three days, I also tested Hadley’s behavior in an alone condition of about an hour (30.11. – morning, 1.12. – night, 2.12. – noon). I filmed Hadley while I and the other dogs were out. Never did floor digging/biting occur in the alone condition, which further confirms the hypothesis that the unwanted behavior is reinforced by attention.

Nicole made a graph from the data I collected:

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 16.14.43

What’s next?

On December 3rd, I had another phone consult with Nicole to look at what had happened during the last days, and see where we should go from here. We agreed that our hypothesis had been confirmed and that I should keep doing what I had been doing in the last three days, with some minor modifications:

DRA: I will keep up my DRA routine, but start not only reinforcing with eye contact and a calm voice, but also petting in slow, long strokes. For the time being, I’ve set my timer to 15-minute intervals, which I am planning on keeping up for the next weeks.

DRI: I will keep continuously reinforcing the incompatible behaviors of sitting or standing in front of me, making eye contact, with a cheerful voice and petting. For the time being, I will keep up a continuous schedule, but in about 3 weeks, I might start intermediately reinforcing instead. Once these incompatible are well established, they will be further strengthened and made resistant to extinction by means of an intermittent schedule.

DRL: I will keep reinforcing lower intensity behavior, i.e. Hadley’s stretching/rolling on the ground/couch with petting and calmly talking to him. For the time being, I will keep reinforcing continuously; in about three weeks, I might introduce an intermittent schedule of reinforcement for this behavior.

P-: Whenever Hadley bites/digs the floor, I will keep doing what I’ve been doing and leave the room for 10 seconds.

I will keep taking notes and see what happens. Stay tuned for Part 3 of the potentially obsessive floor digging riddle!

Further ponderings: Holy shit! Have we been looking at stereotypic behaviors/OCD all wrong?

These last weeks have been most intriguing for me. In the beginning, I was worried – a lot. I did not want Tom’s puppy to develop OCD and need to be on medication for all his life, and to be constantly on the lookout for interrupting, and to … argh!!! What would his life be like? Would he be unhappy and ruled by obsessions, chasing shadows, for the rest of his life rather than living the blissfully careless life a puppy should have?

Well, then, with Nicole’s help, I made a plan and started looking at the behavior from a applied behavior analysis point of view. Things started making sense, albeit in an unexpected way: it wasn’t interrupting (i.e. attending to Hadley) that was the solution, but the very opposite: leaving the room (i.e. withdrawal of attention)!

This realization, together with the results of the study by Hall et al. (2) and the fact that a number of knowledgeable, experienced trainers recommended me to redirect (i.e. give attention) as soon as Hadley engaged in the unwanted behavior made me wonder: is there a big number of dogs out there who are on meds these days, and still suffer from occasional compulsive outbursts, simply because their well-meaning human families unknowingly reinforced their stereotypies by means of redirecting (i.e. giving them attention?), making the behavior not better, but worse and worse over time? It wouldn’t be very surprising if this was the case: my first intuition had also been to interrupt what worried me! It seemed like the obvious thing to do! Apart from that, most of us are predisposed to look for problems inside the animal rather than looking at environmental consequences. I’m not saying that the problem will never be inside the animal – of course, this is also possible. However, how often is “the problem inside the animal” really the case, and not simply a convenient interpretation? We can only profit of developing the habit to take a good look at the antecedents and consequences of an unwanted behavior and making sure we’re not strengthening a problem behavior with a seemingly commonsensical approach.

The good thing: I’ve learned a lot in the last weeks, and my wish to study behavior has once more been strengthened. I’d really like to learn more about applied behavior analysis and its implications for dog training! Well, I guess I’ll just have to keep saving up for the program of my choice. 🙂


Read the other parts of the floor-digging series:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:



(1) See Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003. S. 211f and 356f.

(2) Hall, N.J., Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C.D.L. (2015). The role of environmental and owner-provided consequences in canine stereotypy and compulsive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10, pp. 24-35.

The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 1

Karen Overall defines OCD as “[r]epetitive, stereotypic motor, locomotor, grooming, ingestive, or hallucinogenic behaviors that occur out of context to their “normal” occurrence or in a frequency or duration that is in excess of that required to accomplish the ostensible goal.” It may either be “primary (truly endogenous) or secondary and associated with thresholds for stimulation.” (1)

When I observed the following on several days in a row, I started worrying: was Hadley starting to develop OCD? And if so – how could I stop it?

Hadley digging and biting the floor.

I was overwhelmed and worried. This was the first time I had been confronted with behavior like this. I knew that Border Collies were said to have a predisposition for compulsive and stereotypic behavior, and I was afraid that, unless I did something now, this was going to get worse. Tom and I had already observed this behavior in Hadley’s first week with us. The first times it occurred, we always redirected him to a chew toy, not sure what to make of it. After a few weeks where the behavior kept creeping up every once in a while – every two or three days – I decided to not redirect, but observe if Hadley would stop on his own. He did so, after about 30 seconds. However, in the following weeks, I felt like the floor digging/biting was happening more often, and whenever I observed without intervening, it lasted longer and longer – up to a few minutes, looking like in the video I  posted above.

I decided to consult Nicole Pfaller-Sadovsky, a trainer whose approach I appreciate and admire. She would have a scientifically sound strategy to tackle this molehill before it grew into a mountain, and her outsider’s perspective would help me see through my loving doggy-mum interpretation, and focus on the functional analysis we needed in order to get to the root of Hadley’s floor digging and biting.

Nicole and I agreed that I would observe Hadley’s behavior for two to three days, take notes and do a functional analysis, i.e. identify the antecedents and consequences of the behavior. In case you’re interested in the details – here’s my observations from November 24 to 26, including the informal notes I  jotted down and the videos I took.



Observation 1:


Time: 11.35h


Duration: 23 sec (1.32-1.55)


Shadows: almost invisible since it’s the middle of the day.


I’m having lunch and watching a TV show. Hadley, who (I am pretty sure) was sleeping under the couch, comes over and starts rolling on his back and making noises – this is when I start observing him. He rolls around on his back, makes noises, and then starts floor digging. He stops again after a few seconds, gets up, wanders around, sniffs the floor and then lies down near the stairs.


This has been a quiet, not particularly action-filled day.



Observation 2:


Time: 12.30h


Duration: 15 seconds


Shadows: the black plastic floor of the crate is somewhat shiny, but there is no direct light. Hadley’s shadow is visible, but not as prominent as the other day. I cannot tell if it’s his shadow he’s trying to grab.


12.30. Hadley has been in his crate for 15 minutes and has lunch kibble hidden in two cardboard boxes stuffed with newspaper. He has fun with these toys, then lies down for about 5 minutes and relaxes. He then cleans himself, starts playing (still lying) with the cardboard pieces and his tail. I’m on the phone. Hadley is watching me from the crate (I’m probably pacing the room).

00.59 – after looking out of the crate for a few seconds, Hadley gets up, turns and immediately starts digging in the corner of the crate. 1.02 – 1.17 (15 seconds). He turns while digging and biting the floor (twice), and starts making his noises. He then turns, lifts his head with a short licking intention, walks around and sniffs, and goes back to playing with his cardboard boxes.


His tail is still up, and there’s no panting.



Observation 3: (no video)


I’ve taken H. out to pee, and forgot my keys. I’ve been waiting in front of my apartment door for about 5 minutes, talking on the phone, while Hadley just hangs out there, mostly lying around looking bored. Then he gets up, sniffs and starts digging for about 10 seconds, then stops again and lies down. (I don’t interrupt my phone call but observe. This is a tile floor. There are no shadows visible, but, depending on your angle, there is a blurry, plate-sized blotch of light.)


 Observation 4: 17.50h (no video)


Hadley was lying on the floor, on the spot where he then started digging – I heard a scratch and turned around, and turned on the camera as he was just getting up.






Observation 5: 17.15



Time: 17.15h


Shadows: Where he starts digging, his own shadow/the shadow of his head is visible. When he wanders away, sniffing (but not digging), shadows are hardly visible.


Duration: 7 sec (0.21-0.28) I might have interrupted him by moving closer with the camera, as he looks up at me when he stops.


The three dogs had a little run on the fields and 5min of llw training in the morning, and in the afternoon, I took Hadley to the first district for 30min of city training.


We’ve been back from our walk for a little over an hour.



Observation 6: 17.30 (no video)


Same thing happens on the balcony (door closed). 


Observation 7: 18.45



Time: 18.45h


Shadows: Hadley’s own shadow/the shadow of his head is visible, but only lightly.


Duration: 50 sec (0.58-01.48)


I had been outside about 10-15min ago (didn’t expect peeing). He’s panting, then sits by the door (“I need to go out.”).




Observation 8: 17.15h



Time: 17.15h


Shadows: shadows of objects are visible, but very blurry.


Duration: 11 min (1.40 – 13.00)


Digging starts at 1.40 and lasts until 13.00, i.e. 11 minutes. This is the longest episode I have observed so far. I follow H. around with the camera and comment on what I observe, since he does not seem to even notice.


In the end of the video, after following Phoebe to the door, Hadley lay down near the stairs; then changed to a different spot of the apartment (opposite kitchen counter) and fell asleep. (Tom did not come in at that point after all.)


This day has been filled with more activities than the day before: in the morning, we went for an hour-long walk with Helene, Xandro and Arkani. On the way to meet them, while Hadley was still on leash, he reacted at a Golden in the distance. When we got home, Hadley slept until noon, then had lunch in a home-made food toy. In the afternoon, he had a raw meaty bone in his crate while Phoebe, Fanta and I went for another short walk and a little dummy practice around the corner. After sleeping some more, he got one short skateboard shaping session (about 15 treats long). Then he went back to sleep – until the above video happened.

Finding a hypothesis

On November 27th, I shared my notes and observations with Nicole, and we planned a behavioral intervention. I had not been able to determine clear antecedents and consequences. After some brainstorming, we decided that the triggers were likely reflections/shadows under certain circumstances, and we came up with the hypothesis that Hadley’s floor biting/digging is reinforced by attention. My past redirecting and occasional ignoring might have put it on an intermittent schedule reinforcement: Reflections on floor – Hadley digs and bites floor –> Chrissi/Tom look at & talk to Hadley. I will test this hypothesis over three days, starting on Monday, November 30.

Testing of hypothesis & intervention

  • P-: To test the hypothesis that attention reinforces floor biting/digging, the first and most important step Nicole and I agreed on is that during the next observation period of 3 days, I’ll immediately remove attention by means of leaving the room as soon as Hadley engages in the unwanted behaivor. I’ll keep surveilling Hadley by means of cameras, so I’ll be able to see what happens after I have left.

This way, the consequence (attention) is going to be different from now on. We’ll see if Hadley soon stops once I have left the room, and we’ll see whether the behavior decreases in the course of these three days. I’ll stay outside for at least 10 seconds.

Reflections on floor – Hadley digs and bites floor –> all people leave

Furthermore, I’ll differentially reinforce alternative behavior:

  • DRA: when Hadley is awake and either plays by himself or decides to chew something by himself, when he is just looking around, or when he is wandering from one sleeping spot to the next, I will reinforce this wanted behavior with attention. I will reinforce alternative behavior on a high frequency with low-key attention (look at and talk to him). I will scrupulously take notes and set a timer reminding me to reinforce him – I’ll start with a fixed-interval schedule of 30 seconds, and, if all goes well, soon use a thinner FI60s schedule, and keep making the schedule even thinner to last several minutes, say, FI10min, then FI15min etc.
  • DRL: as you may have seen in the above video, Hadley’s floor digging/biting is frequently preceded by rolling on the floor, lifting his head, pricking his ears, seeking eye contact. In fact, in the last three days, these behaviors have become the leads that let me predict that floor digging/biting was about to happen. Therefore, in addition to the alternative behavior mentioned above, I will also continuosly reinforce this lower-intensity behavior with attention (calm petting, calmly talk to him), i.e.: every time he starts rolling on his back, I will reinforce him. The interesting question: will this keep him from escalating to the full-blown floor digging/biting?
  • DRI: I’ll also differentially reinforce incompatible behavior for getting my attention. For now, Nicole suggested we pick a well-known behavior. Hadley has already learned to sit and seek eye contact if he wants something. In the next three days of observation, I will strongly and continuously reinforce either sitting or standing in front of me and seeking eye contact. As a reinforcer for this, I will use a cheerful voice and calm petting.

Alone Condition

I’ll also video Hadley for periods of time when neither I nor the other dogs are at home. If our hypothesis is correct, Hadley should not be showing the floor digging/biting behavior when alone, since there is no one around whose attention could reinforce it. I will do one alone condition of 30 to 60 minutes on each of my three observation days. I’ll have one in the morning, one at noon and one at night.

Why don’t I interrupt/redirect the floor digging/biting?


When I originally asked fellow long-time herding breed owners and experienced trainers about their opinion and showed them the original video, 14 (!) people  – all of them with experience with OCD dogs – suggested redirecting immediately (either to a toy or by means of having him perform an incompatible behavior, like calm lying on a mat), 10 (!) people suggested medication, 7 people suggested more physical and mental exercise and more enrichment, 6 people suggested managing potential triggers (putting down carpets, preventing access to all areas where this has happened, change lighting), and 2 people suggested less physical exercise and stimulation.

All the people whose opinion I included here are experienced working-line herding breed owners and/or trainers. Interestingly, everyone’s advice – even if they suggested interrupting – mainly focused on what they perceived to be the cause of the problem. No one looked at the immediate consequences the behavior had had for Hadley up until now.

I was a bit at a loss. Consulting with Chris, we agreed that Hadley had a healthy amount of physical and mental exercise and enrichment, and also enough calm and relaxing down-time to balance out the excitement. I’ve put a lot of thought into how much or how little mental and physical stimulation Hadley should receive in his first months, and am still convinced he’s on a healthy balance of stimulation and relaxation. However, reading the redirect-suggestions of all these people whose opinion I appreciate, I was even  more concerned about Hadley’s mental health than before I had asked the question. And I was at a loss: more exercise, really? I wasn’t so sure. Interrupt … okay, that seemed to make sense. But it hadn’t really helped so far! Originally, we had always interrupted, and it still seemed to be getting worse! Meds? Ahm, nope, I didn’t want to go down that road – it seemed way too early for such a step! Removing all triggers? Yes, that made sense. But I wanted to solve the problem, not just manage it … What was I supposed to do?

I asked Nicole’s opinion, and she informed me that there was a study suggesting obsessive behavior might be reinforced by owners’ attention. Should this be the case, the problem would be fairly easy to solve by means of P- (see above). This hypothesis would also be fairly easy to test: if my attention was reinforcing the floor digging/biting, withdrawal of attention should decrease the behavior. If the behavior was being reinforced by owner attention, it should not occur in the alone condition. Also, if the floor digging/biting really was reinforced by attention, redirecting would not help, but strengthen the behavior – after all, redirecting is a form of attention.

Only if the behavior was truly self-stimulating should redirecting help. In this case, the behavior should also occur in the alone condition – and the behavior would be truly hard to treat.

Rather than starting by means of assuming the worst, we’d go with the hypothesis that attention was indeed the consequence that kept the behavior going and had made it worse. After all, since Hadley had been with us, his floor digging/biting had been on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement: we had sometimes redirected (which might be reinforcing) and sometimes not redirected. Let’s hope that three days from now, we will know more!

Thank you, Nicole, for helping me think clearly, and make a plan – I already feel better. Also, now that I have a plan, the worried doggy mum inside of me was replaced by the behavior analysis nerd. And that’s a state of mind a definitely prefer! 🙂


Read the other parts of the floor-digging series:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:



(1) Overall, Karen L. (2013) Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from

(2) Hall, N.J., Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C.D.L. (2015). The role of environmental and owner-provided consequences in canine stereotypy and compulsive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10, pp. 24-35.