Obsession... a new perfume by Calvin Collie

Our 18 month old rescue BC, is a dig-a-holic. We have been working very hard all summer to try to get it under control. After watching her for a while, I have come to the conclusion that it isn't really digging. I think it is a way to sublimate her frustration and I think it may have to do with certain sounds. She is very noise-sensitive. If we or the neighbors are mowing or weed whacking, running a vacuum or doing any other activity that uses noisy machinery, she starts in circling a spot in the yard, then leaping at it with her front feet and teeth. She stares at the ground for several more seconds, "attacks" it, then turns to chase the dirt clods that she kicks up in the digging process. She could care less about the actual hole itself. She has put some pretty good sized holes in the yard and I'd just a soon get her to stop (if possible) before the winter rains set it. Any advice?

A Border Collie with an obsession? Nahhh.... couldn't be. :-)

Actually, just about any Border Collie worth his or her salt is obsessive to some degree - that's what they've been bred for. Women think men have one-track minds... that is, until they meet a Border Collie. They say Border Collies are highly intelligent and yet, if you could read their minds, probably 99 percent of the time it would be something like "Sheep..... sheep..... sheep...." (or substitute whatever object it might be - Frisbee, ball, etc.) It's one of the things that makes them such great herding dogs, or Frisbee dogs, or flyball dogs, etc. Single-mindedness to the nth degree.

This is normal for your average Border Collie. They give new meaning to the terms "focus" and "intensity". This is nothing to worry about and most Border Collie owners are accustomed to dealing with this sort of behavior. The problem however, comes when that obsessiveness is taken too far.

At times, some Border Collies can become what I would call the equivalent of "obsessive-compulsives" in human psychological cases. These are situations where people feel an inexplicable need, for example, to constantly rearrange the furniture in their house, wash their hands over and over, or dust their shelves countless numbers of times. Some Border Collies can display very similar behaviors (oftentimes they are rescues) and when it gets to this extreme it is considered a problem behavior (particularly if it is an unproductive behavior - and yes, I know that requiring a tennis ball to be thrown down the hall 24 hours a day is not quite "productive" in the practical sense of the word, but I mean truly unproductive).

Obsessive-compulsive behavior in a Border Collie exhibits itself as: constantly turning in circles, staring at the wall or leaves on the ground for long stretches of time, bouncing up and down over and over again, or repeating any sort of inconsequential and meaningless action. Almost always, this type of behavior is produced in a situation where the dog has not had enough mental stimulation. It can also be produced, as in your case, as a coping mechanism for stress. Since Border Collies are indeed very intelligent beings, the need to utilize their mind is an undeniable one and if they are not given an outlet for their mental focus, they will create one for themselves. If the dog is locked up or confined for long periods of time or is given little interaction with humans or other dogs, it will create a "task" for itself to do and to stimulate its mind. Have you ever been confined to a bed for a long period of time, without a TV or anything to read? You start doing things like counting the ceiling tiles or pulling apart the threads on your comforter. A Border Collie's belief is truly that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" and they will do whatever it takes to occupy themselves. This may entail staring at the walls. Or watching leaves blow in the wind. Or searching for birds flying overhead. Or in your case, digging a hole. This behavior becomes formalized and ritualized and after being repeated innumerable times, it becomes a compulsion. The same thing happens with individuals that come under high levels of stress. As a coping mechanism, they "disassociate" themselves from the source of stress - intensely focusing on some other action completely unrelated to the stressor. Again, this becomes so ingrained that it turns into a compulsion. In the extreme (like child sexual abuse cases), it exhibits itself as multiple-personality disorder.

As an example, I have had two recent cases of dogs of this type. One was left in the backyard all day, every day, with little human interaction, and nothing but a pond with goldfish in it to amuse herself. She would sit at the edge of the pool and stare at the fish for hours upon end, obviously making stories up to herself about the trials and tribulations of her fish as they swam through the world at her feet. This became such a compulsion for her that she could not resist staring at any body of water, no matter what was in it or what was going on around her. The other case was of a dog that was either crated or left alone all day in a small confined room. To amuse herself, she would stare at the walls and then circle - over and over and over... Now she still does it, confined or not. It's rather amusing to watch - it's like she hears the walls "talking" and then turns in a circle to see where the voices are coming from. A dazed look comes over her face and she goes off in a sort of "dream world" and can be brought out of it only through repeated interjections.

What to do

Since this is not truly a major behavioral "problem" (unless the dog is mutilating itself or harming its environment), a slow process of redirection is the solution. The basic idea is to redirect the dog's focus to a more productive outlet, such as chasing a ball or coming over to the owner for affection. Every time the dog begins to exhibit the obsessive-compulsive behavior, you need to distract them in some way and refocus their attention elsewhere. When the dog begins this digging and pouncing, you need to break their concentration by interjecting yourself and call the dog over to you or get its attention by throwing a ball for it. Tug toys work well - basically whatever the dog enjoys doing. Over time (with the length of time depending on how firmly entrenched this behavior is), the problem behavior slowly diminishes until it no longer exists (or is not a problem). In behavioral terms this is called "extinction" - where the behavior and its reward are gradually eliminated until they are completely extinguished. The initial reward for the compulsive behavior was the action itself - the turning, the digging, the staring - primarily... engaging the dog's mind. This approach seeks to get rid of that reward and promote another (a game of fetch, attention from the owner, a tug-o-war game, etc.)

If need be, a mild form of punishment can also be used to help extinguish the behavior. Interrupting the dog and saying "NO!" not only helps disrupt the self-fulfilling reward but additionally associates it with a negative consequence. If this doesn't work, the punishment can be escalated over a long period of time (we're talking about several months here). And finally, if none of this works, and the dog shows no improvement over the course of a year (and remember, bad habits die hard. Try eliminating your own bad habits in a brief amount of time), then there are drug therapies that can be utilized to help reduce the behavior (normally it is Prozac or similar drugs). I would only use this as a last resort and only in self-mutilating or destructive cases.

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