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.

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