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March 7, 2011

Researchers from the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University are hunting for causes and solutions to canine compulsive disorders. The current study targets border collies who chase lights and shadows.

It can be a BIG problem, which is one reason I NEVER showed Lilly a laser pointer … as either a game or training reward.

Lilly, canine heroine of the award-winning dog blog Champion of My Heart - photo included in article about canine compulsive disorder

Canine Compulsive Disorder Control Group

The research team invited Lilly to take part in the study as a member of the control group. In other words, Lilly can help because she does NOT chase lights and shadows.

That’s right. Amid all of her various dog-dog fears and generalized anxieties , Lilly has never shown any compulsive behaviors … either before taking behavior medicines or after.

I believe their goal is to study:

  • 100 border collies who do chase lights and shadows
  • 100 border collies who do not

The hope is that they’ll not only find a genetic link to this compulsion — the most common one in border collies (and other herding breeds) — but also explore which versions of the behavior respond best to which medicines.

More Border Collies Needed

If you have a border collie who fits into either of these categories, the Tufts team WANTS your help. They need your help. It’s pretty simple, really:

  1. Complete this Border Collie Compulsive Disorder Questionnaire.
  2. Have a veterinary technician at your veterinary hospital draw blood following these instructions.
  3. Sign this consent form and get the technician to sign as a witness.
  4. Ship the blood samples and paperwork to Dr. Niwako Ogata at the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic.

Niwako Ogata, DVM, PhD
Animal Behavior Clinic
Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine
Dept. of Clinical Sciences
200 Westboro Rd
North Grafton MA 01536
Tel 508-887-4702
Fax 508-839-8734

Because Lilly has no compulsive behaviors, I got to skip 3 pages of the questionnaire. All told — including answering the study questions and drive time to the veterinary hospital and post office — I spent about 4 hours and $44 taking part.

The study budget covers both the blood draw and overnight shipping costs, so we included those receipts in the box with the blood and will be reimbursed.

Other Canine Compulsive Disorder Findings

Veterinary researchers have already isolated genes associated with flank sucking (a common compulsive behavior in dobermans) and genes associated with tail chasing (a common compulsive behavior in bull terriers).

And, the genes involved are different … interestingly enough.

So, findings from this border collie study could join these discoveries and provide:

  • Partial genetic mapping for the breed
  • Insights to breeders to avoid passing on a predisposition for canine compulsive behavior
  • Treatment options for dogs already showing signs of compulsive tendencies

Canine Compulsive Disorder Treatments

This opportunity to take part in the border collie study came up while I did research for an article a few weeks ago. A few points of interest …

Canine compulsive disorder is the dog equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in people. In fact, findings from these dog studies have changed the way OCD is treated in people (a combination of retaining one brain chemical and blocking another). And, the only reason they don’t call it OCD in dogs is because “purists” argue that you cannot know that a dog is obsessing … even though they look to folks like us as if they are.

Canine compulsive disorder most often shows up in dogs when they reach “social maturity” (ages 1-3) or in response to a stressor of some sort. For example, it’s fairly common for dogs to develop these behaviors after a surgery or in response to a move or other change.

While there is no scientific proof that you can accidentally trigger canine compulsive disorder in dogs by exposing them to certain stimuli (like laser pointers), the connection is strongly suggested. Keep in mind, though, that we’re talking about dogs who have a likely predisposition toward compulsive behavior … not every dog.

My article includes the story of a dog who learned to chase a laser pointer Labor Day Weekend, and 6 weeks later was chasing lights and shadows to the point of exhaustion.

Successful treatment of canine compulsive disorders almost ALWAYS involves medicines. Once a compulsive behavior pattern has taken hold, it’s nearly impossible to break the cycle without a combination of behavior modification AND medications.

Dogs with canine compulsive disorders are suffering. Sometimes people find these behaviors funny or cute … like the dog I found in Utah who hoards, guards, and sleeps with rocks. He LOVES his rocks, but the truth is that he is suffering greatly. He has nearly non-stop anxiety about finding the “right” rock and protecting it once he has. He doesn’t respond kindly to anyone who tries to intervene.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. Hi, are you still involved with this subject, I see the dates are now a few years back? I have a beautiful, much loved blue merle who is 19months old. He has definately got obsessive compulsive behaviour and if you are still about I really need to find out as much as I can to help him. Thanks

  2. HELP! Mr. Freckles is 7 years old and obsessed with shadows! He is a red border collie. He was my dad’s dog and when my dad became ill with fatal pancreatic cancer we adopted Mr. Freckles. He is a wonderful dog and really smart. he understands many verbal commands. one night my boys were playing with a lazer pointer with our cat. Mr. Freckles joined in the fun. Since then he is obsessed with shadows. It is so sad for us to watch. We are constantly correcting him by saying, “No Shadows, Mister”. he stops but then starts again. If you turn out the lights he sits and stares waiting for the shadows to return. We are heartbroken for Mister. Can you help him?

    1. Laurene ~

      I just emailed you privately, but I’m posting my answer here as well.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your Dad and about Mr. Freckles.

      I cannot personally help, but I can give you some ideas.

      Talk to your veterinarian about getting a consult with a dog behaviorist (either a nonveterinarian with a PhD or a veterinarian who is board-certified in animal behavior).

      Treatment will likely include some medications to help Mr. Freckles resist the temptation of shadows as well as some behavior modification work.

      As the blog post mentions, there is a team at Tufts University in Massachusetts that studies this problem in border collies. I suspect if your veterinarian called the university he / she could get some ideas on how best to help Mr. Freckles.

    1. Gina … thanks for your note. Because the study is so genetically based, they need just border collies for this light chasing study. It’s a particular problem in the breed. Some do chase their tails too, but this study is only about lights/shadows.

  3. I can’t wait for your article to come out. Our vet very specifically told us to *never* expose our OCD dog, R, to laser pointer lights.

    We’re finding that our attempts at behavior modification for his various obsessions work for short time periods and then all hell breaks loose again. Maybe we should consider meds… We keep telling ourselves that we can live with his obsessions (which we can although they’re a pain to deal with) but your point that the dogs themselves are actually feeling bad hit home for me.

    1. Well, KB … I’m not sure my full article will help you much because the OCD elements are just a tiny part of it. But, I did put many of the details about it in this post specifically for you. :o)

      Indeed, while you guys can “cope” with R’s obsessions, he likely is feeling just terrible when it’s happening. You’d have to ask your vet, but I believe the treatment with meds is relatively short term … long enough to break the cycle and let the behavior mod really take ahold.

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