Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
Tail Chasing in Puppies
Tail chasing and puppies seem to go hand in hand, just like cherries on a hot fudge sundae. Why do puppies chase their tails though? Why is tail chasing so popular in these youngsters?
In order to grasp a closer insight into the behavior, it helps to take a closer look into how the world is perceived through a puppy's eyes. Puppies somewhat seem confused about where their bodies start and where they end. That tail doesn't seem to belong to them and they surely find this odd appendage intriguing.
Tail chasing in puppies is often seen when puppies are separated from their litter mates and mom, and they are brought into their new homes. With no more siblings to play with, puppies may easily grow bored so they're often left to play with whatever moves, and boy do those tails move!
On top of this, balls may end up under couches and dog owners may go to work, but that faithful tail is always there. All the puppy needs to do is acknowledge it, and he's back to tail chasing in no time.
Tail chasing is over all, a very common behavior in puppies. Fortunately, most puppies outgrow this behavior once they find more productive things to do.
Instincts at Play
Dogs are attracted to anything that moves, and their primary instinct is to chase whatever captures their attention. Their eyes are purposely wired to track fast movements. This instinct is particularly strong in certain dog breeds (think high-energy herding breeds like German shepherds or Australian cattle dogs), and when dogs are bored and left with little to do.
Unlike us, dogs don't play Sudoku or do crossword puzzles and they lack the manual dexterity for thumb-twiddling, so when they are bored, they are BORED.
Left with not much to do, it makes total sense for them to find their own little forms of entertainment. For some dogs it's barking, for others it's digging and for some others, you named it, it's tail chasing!
Coping With Emotions
It often pays to pay attention when certain dogs behaviors occur. In what context does the tail chasing behavior occur? It is not uncommon for dogs to revert to tail chasing in specific circumstances such as when they are full of energy and overly excited.
So if your dog goes on a bout of tail chasing when you grab the leash, have guests over or when you come home from work, you can almost bet that it's the result of your dog feeling overstimulated and not knowing what to do with all that surplus of energy and excitement.
As with humping behaviors in puppies and running in circles, sometimes dogs chase their tails simply because they really don't know what else to do. They are just looking for an outlet for all their energy and excitement.
A Displacement Behavior
Have you ever debated between two different course of actions, and as you were thinking, you started tapping your foot, biting your nails or fiddling with your hair? These behaviors are referred to as displacement behaviors.
Dogs use displacement behaviors too. For example, suppose that Rover is lying down and a child starts petting him. The dog wants to sleep, but he doesn't dare to growl or snap at the child, so he starts licking instead.
In a similar fashion, a dog may start tail chasing when he does't know what to do, but is in need of a distraction or a way to "vent" while discharging some energy.
While dog don't go through divorces and don't need to balance their checkbooks, they can lead stressful lives and develop anxiety.
A Compulsive Behavior
Some dogs become so dependent on tail chasing that it soon turns into a compulsive behavior, which can be quite problematic to eradicate.
In general, compulsive behaviors are suspected when the dog appears in distress and cannot be called out of the behavior, when the behavior occurs out of context and increased stimulation and exercise makes no difference, explains veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall in the Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats.
The onset of compulsive behaviors in dogs appears to correlate with the onset of social maturity taking place anywhere between 18 and 24 months of age, during a time of significant neurochemistry changes. Left untreated, affected dogs tend to worsen overtime.
Did you know? Some dog breeds may be more prone to tail chasing than others. German shepherds are one example. Bull terriers in particular are also known for spinning in circles, chasing their tails and trancing. According to a study, male bull terriers were at an 8 percent greater risk for the diagnosis of tail chasing compared to females.
Looking for Attention
Some dogs are particularly eager to get any type of attention, even if the attention is of the negative type. So if when your dog chases his tail, and you look at him, talk to him or even laugh, that may be reinforcing the behavior, allowing it to put roots.
As mentioned, to a dog who craves attention, even attention of the negative type is always better than zero attention. So if you are scolding your dog or perhaps pushing him to stop, this may still qualify as attention and may cause the dog to want to repeat the behavior.
Possible Health Issues
Sometimes, dogs may develop issues in their derrière. Spared from the gift of voice and therefore unable to tell us what's wrong, dogs must take their health matters in their own "paws."
A dog who is insistently chasing the tail may therefore be suffering from some issues with their anal glands or perhaps their butts are itchy due to pesky parasites such as tapeworms. At other times, perhaps they accidentally got their tail snatched in a door or they may have suffered a bug bite.
If your dog rarely if ever chases his tail and now he shows a new keen interest in it, consider that he may hurt or maybe he just feels itchy.
In some cases, tail chasing may also be seen in dogs suffering from partial seizures. For this reason, a consultation with a specialist in veterinary neurology may be needed to rule this possibility out.
Now That You Know...
As seen, tail chasing in dogs may be due to a variety of reasons! The next question though is how can you work on this issue if your dog has taken a strong liking for this behavior? Here are some tips.
- Have your dog see your veterinarian to rule out health issues. It would be fruitless (and time consuming!) to try to fix an issue that stems from an underlying health disorder.
- Don't encourage the behavior. Ignore it, and even leave the room the moment your dog starts tail chasing if you suspect he performs the behavior for attention.
- Praise and reward your dog for exhibiting any spontaneous calm behaviors that do not involve tail chasing. For example, praise and reward your dog with super yummy treat for lying down and taking a deep breath.
- Never punish your dog for tail chasing since this risks heightening the dog's anxiety risking to worsen the problem.
- Prevent tail chasing by providing outlets for pent-up energy and boredom. Offer walks, training, brain games and toys to keep your dog busy and happy.
- Redirect your dog to an alternative, incompatible behavior such as extracting food from a toy (like a Kong or Kong Wobbler).
- Provide a structured daily routine. Routines helps decrease anxiety in dogs.
- Severe cases of tail chasing that are difficult to be prevented or redirected, should warrant a visit to a dog behavior professional. Some dogs may need behavior modification with the help of medications. Compulsive behaviors don't tend to get better without treatment which often involves pharmaceutical intervention.
- The earlier compulsive behaviors are tackled, the better. Compulsive behavior that has been going on for a while is almost impossible to interrupt without medications. Medications allow the dog to relax enough so that behavior modification can penetrate the thick mental fog of obsessions.
- Keep record on the tail-chasing behavior (how intense it is, how long each bout lasts, how often it happens) so that you and your behavior professional can determine whether the behavior is decreasing or increasing over time with treatment.