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

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