Like humans, dogs can have a case of OCD
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
Fall is the favorite season of the year for Teddy Bear.
I last wrote about Teddy Bear when he married Lola , his canine girlfriend, and he loves the fall not because the hot and humid days of summer are over, but because the leaves on the trees and bushes begin to change color and eventually fall to the ground. The wind is brisk, and Teddy Bear is obsessed with chasing leaves. All colors, sizes, and crispness are fair game as long as they are on the move.
Taking Teddy Bear for a walk, when I’m pet-sitting him for my friends who are his family, means stopping at his favorite spots where there are trees and bushes that drop their leaves. He waits patiently for the wind to activate the leaves on the ground, and then he becomes one of the Whirling Dervishes. Passersby always smile as they witness this 12-pound, adorable, white, furry Maltese racing after leaves as if he had a gyroscope inside him.
Teddy Bear is so focused on his leaves he is oblivious of other dogs, people, garbage or cars. Often, he chases the leaves to the point of exhaustion or until I pick him up and carry him off. He is The Leaf Chaser.
Dogs, like us humans, experience anxiety, and they attempt to calm themselves in ritualistic and repetitive behaviors. Besides chasing leaves, Teddy Bear discharges his anxiety by compulsively licking his paw to the point of irritation. At first, his guardians thought he had an allergy, but he tested negative. His behavior is even more pronounced when his 2-year-old sister loves him too much and won’t leave him alone.
Sophie, another dog in my neighborhood, has separation anxiety. Her veterinarian prescribed Prozac, a drug that was originally developed for humans with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Sophie’s guardians were unable to leave her alone. If they did, she would scratch at the door and keep barking until they returned. They sought me out, not for my therapeutic skills but as a dog sitter.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans
Humans have a wider range of behaviors to deal with their anxiety. In my psychotherapy practice I see many people with OCD.
Perry was memorable for the severity of his condition. When he first walked through the door of my office, I saw a very well groomed young man, model perfect. Nothing was out of place. He told me he had anxiety attacks that were interfering with his life. I learned that he wanted to control every aspect of his life. He explained that when he felt particularly out of control, he would become highly anxious and agitated. To calm himself, he would do things like measuring the distance between the hangers in his clothes closet to make sure they were exactly one and a half inches apart. He was unable to resist this compulsive behavior. It enabled him to feel in control of his own tidy, narrow world when it wasn’t possible to do so in the real one.
Perry rarely had friends visiting because his apartment must always be perfect, like himself. If an outsider was invited in, he would risk that something might be misplaced which would trigger his anxiety. Keeping control of his environment even interfered with his sleep.
Another patient, Alice, was an “orderer.” She told me proudly that she felt compelled to line up all her desk items in a neat row, place all her paper clips in the same direction, have all pencil points always sharpened and stack papers neatly in piles on her desk . Even the cleaning service for her company knew to avoid her desk at night and not move anything or else incur her wrath the next morning.
Hoarding is another example of OCD. Hilda was a middle-aged woman whose hoarding in her personal and work lives caused havoc. At work, she was unable to discard reams of papers no longer useful. Her work area had become so cluttered her supervisors had to step in and tell her to get rid of most of the paper. She did, but only by taking it all home to her already overcrowded apartment, much to the displeasure of her new husband. Their second bedroom had already become a storage room with boxes from floor to ceiling. Like others with OCD, Hilda’s behaviors were time-consuming and distressing. They interfered with normal routines and daily functioning, and they taxed her relationships with everyone around her.
Obsessions are persistent impulses or thoughts that intrude into a person’s thinking and cause excessive worry and anxiety. In therapy we work to identify the seeds of the anxiety and develop self-soothing tools.
In Teddy Bear’s case, however, I simply concluded that while his annual leaf-chasing festival certainly classified as a compulsive behavior, it was great fun, too, and nothing for him or anyone else to lose sleep over.
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What do you say? Have you been caught up in a situation where a pet, maybe your own, finds herself being a pawn in what is basically an argument between other family members? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.