All of us, dogs included, have nervous habits. Humans might bite their nails or twiddle their thumbs, but dogs’ options tend to be a lot more limited. One of the most common outlets for anxiety in dogs is compulsive grooming in the form of chewing, licking, and scratching themselves. While all dogs groom their skin and hair periodically, the compulsive groomer will keep you up at night incessantly gnawing away, and may end up with raw spots, bald spots, and severe skin irritation.
I had known about compulsive licking for years, but it didn’t really strike me as a particularly severe problem until my dog, Brody, started doing it. It had been a bad summer for fleas. We finally got rid of the fleas, but he kept chewing, b biting, and licking himself as if they were still there. I couldn’t sleep; he couldn’t sleep, and he was starting to get bald spots. The good news is that I’ve learned firsthand from Brody that the suggestions below actually work! Here’s what to do if your dog has started grooming himself compulsively:
What Is Compulsive Grooming?
Compulsive grooming is grooming that is unnecessary. If your dog has fleas or a rash, the grooming isn’t the problem- the fleas are. So if your dog is licking or scratching a lot, the first step is a trip to the vet. Oftentimes dogs will continue to have skin irritation for awhile after fleas or a skin rash are gone, which accounts for much of what people incorrectly believe to be compulsive grooming. Typically in these cases a shot of cortisone can do wonders to take the itch away. But if there’s no apparent cause for the licking, chewing, etc., your dog may be a compulsive groomer. This is an anxious behavior that can be set off by a number of things. It may be a bad habit that has gotten out of control, a result of increased stress, or a sign of a fearful dog.
What Causes Compulsive Grooming?
Compulsive grooming is an obsessive displacement behavior. This means that the dog feels an uncomfortable feeling and handles the feeling by developing a new habit. This is almost always caused by anxiety, but the anxiety can be caused by a number of things. In order to treat the compulsive grooming, it’s important to find its source. Have their been any new changes in the house? Has the dog recently been sick? Have you been slacking off on training? Look at things from your dog’s perspective and try to find the source of the problem.
How To Treat Compulsive Grooming
In order to treat compulsive grooming, you must treat the anxiety. Dogs who are busy are less likely to be anxious, so work on upping your dog’s activity level. You can also try instituting a nothing in life is free program. This program re-establishes household order and can help insecure dogs feel more confident. To read more about NILIF, go here.
Separation anxiety is also a common cause of compulsive grooming. If you never see your dog licking or scratching but notice bald spots and skin irritation, your dog may be chewing to pass the time when you are gone. Consider hiring a dog walker once a day to come by and give your dog a few minutes of exercise.
Providing your dog with something other than herself to chew on may also help. Stock up on tough rawhides, and consider buying a Kong or other puzzle toy and stuffing it with food. Playing with the toy and getting food out of it may help to burn off nervous energy and stop the obsessive grooming.
If these minor changes don’t work, it’s time to call in an expert. Contact the American Association of Pet Dog Trainers to find a dog trainer in your area. Typically this sort of behavior can be treated in just a few brief training sessions. Your dog will thank you because compulsive grooming can cause severe skin problems and is unlikely to go away on its own.
In Brody’s case, the chewing seemed to be a result of not getting enough exercise. I had been slacking off, and he had responded by chewing his fur off. Within a week or two of providing him with more exercise and attention, the grooming was gone.