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.

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