As we walked into the laundry room together during our first consultation session for his dog, Mike warned me, “There will be some blood, so don’t be alarmed.”
We opened the door and there was Piper, his 4-year-old German Shepherd, wide-mouthed, wide-eyed and ready to greet us. She threw herself at us with licks and happy whimpers. As I said hello to Piper, I looked past her and saw what her worried owner had warned me about. Small specks and streaks of blood were splattered all along the walls at about the height of Piper’s back.
Mike looked back and forth between Piper and me. “Do you see what she does to herself? It just breaks my heart!”
After letting Piper outside to potty, the three of us settled in the living room to talk further. Well, Mike and I settled at least. Piper seemed to have other intentions.
She stared at us for a moment and then began the behavioral routine that was the reason Mike had sought out my help. Piper looked to the right with alert eyes and then turned her head toward her back end. In an instant, she began spinning wildly to the right, biting at her tail and yipping excitedly. Within seconds, she had turned into a whirling dervish, a swirl of brown and black fur slowed only by occasional moments when she caught the tip of her tail in her front teeth, froze briefly, and then let it go again, moving back into a spinning and yipping blur before us.
I learned that Mike had adopted Piper from a local animal shelter a year earlier. He had always had Shepherds and had a fondness for the breed. When he visited the shelter and saw Piper spinning and leaping at the walls of her kennel, he thought she looked a little wild but he was drawn to her nonetheless. He figured her behavior was due to being caged and that she would come around when he brought her home.
Within days of her being in his home, however, Mike realized that the spinning and tail chasing were still happening. Her veterinary examination showed no medical problems or structural abnormalities, and his veterinarian suggested the behavior was a possible remnant of her many months in the shelter.
So Mike tried to ignore it at first — then tried to interrupt it by calling her to him whenever she started spinning. Then he tried scolding her and holding her muzzle firmly in his hand to interrupt and correct her when she did it. Nothing seemed to work.
As the months went on, he noticed that although Piper often missed her tail as she chased it, she occasionally caught it in her mouth and bit onto it. These bites were enough to cause minor bleeding, leading to the unsightly blood splatter on the walls around her. He took Piper to a veterinary specialist, who was again unable to identify any medical cause for this behavior and who referred Mike to me for a full behavioral assessment and treatment plan for Piper.
Treatment for Piper was not going to be easy. Obsessive tail chasing and biting, when no medical cause can be found, is often related to long periods of time kenneled or under-stimulated. Some dogs are left home alone or kenneled for too long without toys or chew bones, and they develop tail chasing as a form of sensory stimulation or an escape from boredom. In shelters, dogs are often kenneled in a position where lots of dogs and people pass by each day. This can lead to obsessive tracking, jumping or reactive behavior in the kennel that can be redirected onto the dog’s own tail. Once established, the behavior can be hard to change, even in a new environment.
In Piper’s case, we started with a daily schedule that provided as much enrichment and exercise as possible. Mike worked 40 hours a week so he arranged for a dog walker to run with Piper twice a day while he was at work.
We noticed that Piper did not spin when on walks or on leash in the yard, so we arranged for Mike to begin training Piper out back each evening. He trained her to look at him when he called her name and to lay down in the grass for longer and longer Down/Stays. We used her dog food and favorite tug toy to reward short periods without spinning. We did this first while she was on leash and in the yard (where she rarely spun anyway), and then on leash inside the house or off leash in the yard as we gradually made things more challenging for her.
We also changed her evening routines with Mike indoors so that they involved lots of leashed time with long-term chewable items and interactive toy play to keep her occupied.
When she was home alone, we bandaged her tail carefully and applied some dabs of bitter-tasting apple spray to the outside of the bandage. We noticed that this curtailed her tail-biting and stopped her from damaging her tail even while she continued to spin.
With these changes, Piper’s spinning was gradually reduced. After six months, Mike informed me that Piper’s tail had healed. Although she still occasionally spun when she got excited or when she heard a noise, these episodes were short and more easily interrupted by Mike than they ever had been.
In our last conversation, I told Mike that Piper was lucky to have been adopted by such a devoted and patient owner. I could only smile when Mike responded, “No way! I’m the lucky one to have this complicated but wonderful dog in my life!”
Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.