Canine Behavior/Obsessive Sniffing
QUESTION: Hello Jody-
We have a bassethound/terrier mix..(looks like a jack russell) that for the last year has become obsessed (especially in the evenings) with sniffing/licking the bottom of curtains, putting his nose under pillows, blankets, and licking the carpet underneath, etc...when he does this, it as if he is "stalking" the item...he waits for a while and lunges at it with his noise. He can sit this way for hours...with his nose under an object. We've resorted to pulling the curtains up, removing all the pillows, but he still does it with his blanket/dog bed. The only way to stop him is to remove the blanket/bed...then he goes behind chairs and sniffs at carpet or the wall. As you can imagine, it has become very annoying.
I will share that he is 5 years old, and that we have had him to a vet and the vet said everything looks great. We also have him on a high quality food. He is walked every day, is played with, and is given a lot of attention.
He's a great little pup...but this behavior is concerning. Your thoughts on how we can get him to stop it?
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. So... Bassets are a scenting dog. It's in their blood, hard-wired to sniff things out. Terriers are frequently stalking dogs - hard-wired to stalk and catch prey. My own terrier mix hunts crickets in the evening during the summer.
It sounds like your Basset/Terrier is bored at those times and finding a way to do some behaviors that are nearly as necessary as breathing. It's great that you've already taken him to the vet and gotten a clean bill of health. Hopefully your vet did some neurological tests to make sure his brain seems to be functioning normally. Because your dog is mostly doing this at certain times of the day, it suggests a behavioral cause rather a medical cause. In the evenings when this is happening, is everyone else in the house eating dinner, watching TV and otherwise occupied, so that your dog is sort of just 'hanging out'? If so, then that supports the idea that he's finding a way to entertain himself and you're taking away his "toys."
If one of my dogs were doing this, I'd be thinking about ways I could help him tend to those sniffing/stalking needs in a way that I feel more comfortable with, so that he's not potentially damaging my drapes or furniture.
There is a new-ish dog sport out there called Nose Work. It teaches the dog to search (initially boxes) to find an odor (initially a primary odor such as food or a favorite toy for those who aren't food motivated). There are classes that you can take with him to get a feel for how to do this. If you and he really like it, you can even compete. I do it just for the joy of it with my dogs. They love and I love watching them problem solve and gain confidence when they are successful.
If there are no classes near you, there are some books that can walk you through how to set up searches for your dog. But the basic premise is this: have several boxes (at least 4) spread out in a room. Put a few bites of food in just ONE box. Bring the dog in and as you approach the edge of the search area (this may be a doorway or the edge of some furniture), give a command such as "Find it!" or "Search" in a happy, cheery tone of voice. Allow the dog to sniff around and when he finds the food (or toy if he prefers to work for that), wait until he actually gets it and then praise him. If he's searching for food, you should drop several more bites (one at a time) into the box while his face is still in there, so that he believes the box magically produces food. If he's searching for a toy, wait until he gets it out, and then play tug with him or fetch if he prefers. Then remove him from the space and re-set. The food/toy should always go into the same box so that only the one box smells like food, but you should rearrange the boxes between each search. Start with boxes just on the floor, and as he gets really skilled you can start to create puzzles for him to solve.
Puzzles might be that there's a box stacked (in a slightly different direction) on top of the source box. Or that the lid/flaps are partially closed or that it's on end and facing away from the direction where the dog is entering the room, etc. As he becomes proficient at that, you can start to add in height - first simply by putting the source box on top of another box, but then adding more height as he gets good at it, including on furniture if he's allowed on furniture, or up some steps, etc.
You can also build up to searching outside the boxes. The treat/toy goes into a smaller box with a lid with holes poked into it so the odor can come through (think large Altoids sized container for food), and then hide this smaller container NEAR some boxes that are in the room, and then build up to hiding that small source container in the room without any boxes around.
This can be how he gets his dinner in the evenings. If you're putting a few kibbles into the source box and tossing a few more every time he's successful, you can get through dinner in 10-15 minutes and that may be enough nose work for him to settle and leave the curtains alone.
Or you can create a hide-and-seek game where you simply hide his dinner (several kibbles in each location) around a room or several rooms of the house and then bring him in, again telling him "find it" or "search" so that he knows there's something to look for. The first several times you use such a command it won't mean much to him, but as you continue to say it when there's something to find, he'll start to learn that those words are a cue for him to look because there's something worth finding. When he's found the last item, you can say something like "Done" or "finished" and then bring him to another room or outside for a different game. Again, after a while, he'll start to recognize that this later word means he's found it all and the game is over. This can help to settle him even if he begins a spontaneous search and there's nothing to find. You can tell him "Finished" and then redirect him to another activity.
Also, there are puzzle toys that he may enjoy in the evenings. Some are self-entertaining such as the Tricky Treat Ball. You put his kibble into the ball, and as he rolls it around sometimes one kibble comes out, sometimes a dozen come out. It's a soft-ish plastic, so you need to supervise to ensure that he doesn't just tear it open out of frustration. But if you load it rather full the first couple times, and roll it slowly to show him that stuff comes out, and then encourage him to roll it, he'll figure out he can get the food. Then he has the brain activity of having to roll it repeatedly sometimes, and to have to figure out how to get it away from walls or out of corners. It's a great game for most dogs.
There are other puzzle toys that require a little more participation from the human because you load just a couple kibbles or treats into various compartments and then after he's found them, you have to reload... But they are fun as well.
The through-theme in all these suggestions is allowing your dog to use his nose the way we designed it. Give him an appropriate outlet to sniff out and hunt down something other than your furniture and this may put an end to his obsessing over items you'd rather he not engage with.
You can also get him a little more active by using a laser pointer if he likes to chase. You can move the little "bug" around and allow him to chase it. It can sit still sometimes, letting him stalk it, and then it can dart across the room, or up walls or upstairs, etc. So long as he can see it... To prevent the dog becoming super frustrated at never catching the "bug," I will periodically drop or toss a treat in an area away from where the dog currently is focused (have the "bug" on the opposite side of the room from where I toss) and then have the "bug" land on the treat. This way, the dog gets to snatch something. When he grabs the treat, make sure the "bug" disappears for a moment. It can reappear again after he's swallowed.
When you're done with the laser bug, make sure you redirect him to another activity such as fetch, tug, a stuffed Kong or Marrow bone, a walk outside, or any other activity that fully engages him. This way we avoid obsessively looking for the little "bug" that has disappeared for the night.
Video of my two dogs during a Nose Work class, just so you can get an idea of how it works
Books and video about doing Nose Work at home with your dog
The Canine Kingdom of Scent: Fun Activities Using Your Dog's Natural Instincts
The Parker Videos: How One Dog Got Started in K9 Nose Work (this is a DVD that talks about the dog behavior and demos actual nosework training exercises)
Fun Nose Work for Dogs, 2nd Edition
Both of the books also talk about other scenting games besides just the sport of Nose Work, so if one doesn't seem to be a good fit for you and your dog, there are other games discussed that might be a better fit.
Tricky Treat Ball
A number of other puzzle toys that may or may not require more direct interaction from a person to reload for the dog as he successfully finds the hidden treats...
I hope some of this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Hi Jody-
We are using the treats in balls and we also give him his Kong load. He does do that for a short while, but always goes back to the curtains, pillows, blanket...
He does it when we are not with him and when we are in the room. To be honest, he does it pretty much all his waking hours if he is being petted, played with or outside walking. As soon as he enters the house, it is his first priority.
This behavior just kicked in when he was around 4, so it is a bit concerning. It all seems a bit OCD for a dog...and we are finding it difficult to break his concentration on this behavior, even with treats.
Thank you for all of your suggestions. Let me know if there is anything else you would suggest, after receiving my response.
Thank you for the followup. The fact that you have difficulty redirecting him from that activity, and that he is doing it at every opportunity does support the possibility of an OCD behavior. Dogs are capable of developing OCDs just as we are.
For this, I strongly encourage you to seek an evaluation from a veterinary behaviorist in your area. Vet behaviorists are the psychiatrists of the animal world. After earning their veterinary degree, they went on to earn a Master's in behavior. Think of them as the House of diagnosing... They're expertise lies in diagnosing unusual conditions that may exacerbate behavioral issues. They're also excellent at ruling out medical conditions. The vet behaviorist will work with you and your regular vet. They usually have your regular vet run some blood tests and provide the results for their review. Once the vet behaviorist has evaluated your dog, diagnosed and created a behavior modification protocol, they will provide a full summary to your vet for your dog's records. They'll continue to followup with you until the behavior issue is resolved.
It may be that some medication will be needed to help ease the obsession for your dog during the retraining process. Usually this medication is temporary and once the retraining is successful, the medication is weaned down and eventually eliminated from the daily protocol. The vet behaviorist will oversee the prescribing and dosing from beginning to end. Note, if meds are prescribed, it takes a few weeks to build up to a therapeutic dose (much like in humans) and this means that you CANNOT stop the meds cold-turkey. You will HAVE TO wean down the dosing before discontinuing otherwise you risk behavioral fallout stopping the meds too soon.
You can search for a vet behaviorist in your area at this website: http://www.dacvb.org/resources/find/
If there are none in your area, your vet may know one or two that they work with remotely - doing a phone consultation and/or sending video of your dog doing the behavior of concern.
If that's not an option, then Tufts, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine does behavior consultation via Fax/Phone/email. You can learn what's involved in such a consultation at the following link: http://www.tufts.edu/vet/behavior/petfax.shtml
You'll fill out a detailed questionnaire, provide video and arrange a phone conversation (I think). They'll design a comprehensive behavior modification protocol for you, including prescribing medication if any is deemed necessary. They'll communicate with you and probably provide a summary of their report to your regular vet as well so that your vet can monitor in person.
Good luck! Please let me know if you find improvement from any of the options I've suggested, and especially if you get a consult with a vet behaviorist, what they recommend and how it works for you.
Los Angeles Behaviorist