Helping Your Bull Terrier Manage Compulsive Behavior 

white bull terrier outside side profile

Crosses between Terriers and Bulldogs produced beautiful dogs like your Bull Terrier. Living life at full speed in terms of work and play, these dogs are obedient, courageous, and affectionate. Because of their inherent traits, Bull Terriers need to be trained and socialized from a young age to prevent obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The Miniature Bull Terrier Club of America says, “The dogs are active, stubborn (not stupid), and demanding of interaction. They need a firm, intelligent, consistent disciplinarian.”

Bull Terrier Compulsive Behavior Explained

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders in Dogs and Cats, clinical signs of OCD in dogs include excessive grooming, hallucinations, eating and drinking, locomotion (spinning, digging, etc.), and vocalization.  Both full-size and Miniature Bull Terriers may have a genetic disposition to compulsive behaviors. The following behaviors listed in the next sections are canine-specific triggers of compulsive behaviors by the Journal of the American Veterinary Association.

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Causes of Compulsive Behavior

What causes bull terrier compulsive behavior? The onset of compulsive behavior can be gradual or sudden. Environmental, metabolic, and psychological factors all play a role. A study on characteristics of compulsive behavior published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association grouped triggers into seven categories.

1. Exposure to New Stimuli

Bull Terriers can display compulsive behaviors when something excites them. Examples include when the owner returns or departs, moving vehicles, the smell of food cooking, or when a new visitor arrives.

2. Unfamiliar or Unpredictable Environments

Your dog may have anxiety because of changes in the environment. Specific examples include the vet’s office, new locations, or an unfamiliar home. This can also include confinement in a crate or kennel.

3. Lack of Physical or Mental Stimulation

Bull Terriers are playful and full of energy. If they aren’t given enough to do, they may become restless and start pacing or licking themselves excessively. Activities like exercise, training, and mentally stimulating toys might help.

4. Sensitivity to Sound

Loud noises like vacuums, doorbells, sirens, lawnmowers, and car alarms are cited as triggers. Dogs have stronger hearing than humans and can hear sounds at a higher frequency and from a greater distance. Microwave beeps, raindrops on the roof, and the buzz from a refrigerator have also been reported as triggers.

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5. Physical Conditions

The onset of compulsive tail chasing and other behaviors can also start from everyday physical conditions. Bowel movements, flatulence, hunger, sexual arousal, urination, and pain are all physical triggers of compulsive behavior.

6. No Identifiable Trigger

Sometimes compulsive behavior is seemingly without a trigger. Sometimes compulsive behavior will occur at certain times of the day or randomly based on the situation. Many owners report witnessing this excessive behavior that can’t be traced to a trigger.

7. Response to Fear or Phobias

Like people, dogs can have phobias of just about anything. Common phobias include loud noises, household items, kennel, machinery, slippery surfaces, etc. Many owners report social anxiety when dogs are in the presence of new people or other dogs in general. Certain dogs may be afraid of certain situations, such as trips to the groomer, cars, baths, or being outside. Often, rescue dogs who have been abused are afraid of any human contact.

How Compulsive Behavior Can Affect Your Bull Terrier

Mild cases may not affect your dog at all. In mild to moderate cases, canine compulsive disorder is manageable and easily corrected. But in some cases, compulsive behavior can be the source of significant frustration and stress. A study on compulsive tail chasing in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, states “Compulsions are typically time-consuming in clinical tail chasing and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the behavior seems to be performed in response to and in order to alleviate stress.”

This kind of stress puts a strain on your relationship. Bull Terriers may become unwilling to do anything else and even become aggressive. They might injure themselves through excessive spinning, compulsive tail chasing, or licking so much that their skin becomes raw. This is classified as canine compulsion disorder (CCD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is a severe condition that is difficult to treat and requires veterinary intervention.  

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Life Expectancy of a Bull Terrier With Compulsive Behavior

Healthy Bull Terriers have an average lifespan of 12 to 14 years. Mild or moderate displays may affect the quality of life for your dog, but it should not lower their life span. The longevity of a Bull Terrier’s life may be affected if the dog has severe symptoms. As mentioned in the previous section, several physical conditions can occur due to compulsive behavior. According to research conducted by Applied Animal Behaviour Science, “There is evidence to suggest that the stress of living with a fear or anxiety disorder can have negative effects on health and lifespan in the domestic dog.”

Signs That Your Bull Terrier Might Have Compulsive Behavior

One of the most common compulsive behaviors reported by Bull Terrier owners is tail chasing. Other behaviors that have been seen include leg licking, chewing on objects obsessively, pacing, self-mutilation, fly-snapping, and flank sucking. Flank sucking is where a Bull Terrier will suck on a blanket or side of its abdomen, which can cause skin lesions. Fly-snapping is snapping at flies, not to eat them but to chase them off. While confined, Bull Terriers may also compulsively spin in circles before falling asleep.

How Compulsive Behavior Can Affect Your Bull Terrier

Mild cases may not affect your dog at all. In mild to moderate cases, compulsive behavior is manageable and easily corrected. But in some cases, it can be the source of significant frustration and stress. Bull Terrier spinning is a classic sign of overstimulation from the environment and a way for them to lower their arousal levels. If your Bull Terrier can be easily interrupted and doesn’t immediately go back to the obsessive behavior the minute they aren’t distracted, it could just be routine behavior.

Repetitive behavior is expected if a dog is bored or stressed by something out of the ordinary. However, Bull Terriers may become unwilling to do anything else, even becoming aggressive. They might injure themselves through excessive spinning, tail chasing, or licking so much that their skin becomes raw. This is a severe condition that is difficult to treat and requires veterinary intervention. In a study on compulsive tail-chasing Bull Terriers by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, it states, “Compulsions are typically time-consuming in clinical tail chasing and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the behavior seems to be performed in response to and in order to alleviate stress. If a dog with tail-chasing behavior or a human with obsessive-compulsive disorder is physically prevented from engaging in a compulsion, the result is mounting anxiety or tension.”

Ask these questions: Is there a unanimous view within your family that your pet needs intervention? Does your Bull Terrier’s compulsiveness pose a danger to himself?

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How to Care for and Treat Your Bull Terrier‘s Compulsive Behavior

A paper on a review of canine vs. human compulsive behavior from Applied Animal Behaviour Science states, “On the one hand are medically oriented approaches looking for abnormal biological structures and processes to account for OCD…while on the other are psychological approaches, specifically cognitive-behavioral, where explanations are derived from learning theory and the role of cognitive processes (e.g., Shafran, 2005; Abramowitz, 2006).”

In other words, behavioral modification and training are often thought to be the most effective way to treat compulsive behaviors in canines. If you want to try training your Bull Terrier yourself, it might be helpful to keep an eye on professional methods used by animal behavior specialists. If you wish to speak to an animal behavior clinic for help, there are some tips in the last section that will help.

The Fundamentals of Well-Being: The Five Freedoms

The Five Freedoms of animals were first introduced by Professor John Webster in the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in the 1990s. They are freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear, and the opportunity for regular social interaction with their species. Since then, it’s been updated several times. Similar models are used in conjunction with the five freedoms. However, these principles are still widely used as a standard measurement for the quality of life among professional trainers, veterinarians, and behaviorists.

Freedom From Hunger or Thirst

Nutrition is first on the list. Enough water and a well-balanced diet are crucial for a dog’s well-being. Variety is also noted as an essential factor. Just as people need a variety of fruits and vegetables in their diet, dogs need different types of food to stay healthy. Meat, whole grains, and vegetables are necessary for a dog’s diet. Dogs with poor diets can suffer from dry skin, dull coats, loose stool, and even heart problems. Dogs that are well-fed and exercised are less anxious and less stressed.

Freedom From Discomfort

The physical environment a dog lives in has a significant impact on behavior. Comfortable and pleasant surroundings can do wonders for your Bull Terrier’s state of mind. A clean and comfortable living area is important, especially for Bull-Terriers who are prone to skin allergies. If you find yourself with a hyperactive or otherwise misbehaving dog, ensure the environment is free from “temptation” until they gain more self-control.

Freedom From Pain, Injury or Disease

Pain, injuries, and diseases could lead to anxiety, fear, and a loss of control. There are many infections or diseases that can be caused by contaminated water. One obsessive behavior related to this problem is urinating in a water dish. Check out the Calming Fountain Plus+ if you are worried about stale or dirty water. It’s a perfect solution for access to fresh, clean water all day. The fountain has a triple filtration system and is enclosed, safe from contamination.

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Freedom to express normal behaviors

Allowing your Bull Terrier to have some degree of freedom to express natural behaviors is crucial to his well-being. Important behaviors include the pleasure of play, lots of chewing time, a sense of purpose in the family (pack), social interaction with other dogs, and fitness.

If a Bull Terrier doesn’t have this freedom, they may become frustrated, restless, and destructive. Sexual gratification is also part of this if your dog is not spayed or neutered. Dogs who are allowed to express themselves tend to be calm, happy, affectionate, and vigorous.

Freedom from fear and distress

Mental suffering is another cause of stress and anxiety, which may lead to compulsive behaviors as well. As mentioned in the triggers section, fear and distress in dogs can be caused by many things. Fear or distress can be caused by a lack of any one of the five freedoms or past trauma. Ideally, you want to provide a safe and genuinely comfortable environment, manage triggers, and meet all your dog’s basic needs.

Important note: What’s normal for your dog may not be normal for other dogs

Don’t feel bad if you can’t wholly provide every one of the five freedoms. These freedoms are a guide, not necessarily a rule, like many standards. It’s debatable whether these freedoms can be achieved entirely, as discussed in a 2016 critique of the five freedoms published by the Institute of Veterinary, Animal, and Biomedical Sciences. Normal is a subjective term; many behaviors are normal outside but not at home. Some negative experiences may be a regular part of a dog’s life, just as a combat soldier has different duties than a therapist. A therapy dog will have a much different set of behaviors than a working dog trained to assist law enforcement officers.

How to Help Your Bull Terrier Live a fulfilling life

If the behavior is causing conflict within the family or living environment, you’ll most likely want to address it. The good news is behavior modification and environmental enrichment will help to curb triggers and minimize compulsive behavior.

If you recruit a professional for assistance, here are some pointers. Every behavioral consultation begins with a thorough history that covers both the dog’s past experiences and his current condition.

The location for the first interview should be one in which the owner is calm and free from distractions, such as phone calls. This might be done at home or in a comfortable consultation setting like a familiar park. Try to avoid places the dog has previously suffered traumatic experiences, such as the vet’s office. For more information, view this guide on hiring a dog trainer from the ACVB.

Enrich Your Dog‘s environment

One of the first things you can do to help your dog is provide a suitable environment. Bull terriers are pretty sensitive creatures that need attention and can quickly become bored in their environment.

This means adding plenty of toys, games, and activities to keep them mentally stimulated. One way to keep them occupied is to give them a fun puzzle with a tasty reward. Try freezing some healthy treats and hiding them in dog toys that slowly dispense treats.

Pain Management

Hip dysplasia, arthritis, gum disease, and other conditions can all cause discomfort leading to unwanted behavior. Health issues like these require rapid diagnosis and treatment. You may also want to consider natural methods, such as supplements, herbs, or acupuncture.

A Bull Terrier may suffer from pain due to environmental factors such as extreme cold or heat, or as a result of injuries from compulsive behavior. Dogs are stoic by nature, so any bull terrier showing signs of lameness, reluctance to climb stairs or steps, stiff gait when walking or climbing, reluctance to jump onto furniture or into a car should be suspected of pain until proven otherwise.

Improve Your Dog‘s Diet

According to the Journal of Small Animal Practice, “The influence of nutrition on canine behavior,” a change in diet can produce noticeable improvements in mood within days. Dogs’ diets are based on meat and proteins, but veggies and fruit can be beneficial. Vegetables should be consumed in their natural form without added oils or fats. Good choices include pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges, apples, and cantaloupe melons.

Experts recommend a varied diet. It’s common practice to shift diets gradually with one or two ingredients. For example, try switching rice and turkey for potato and lamb for a week. If there is no bad reaction to the new ingredient, keep it in your rotation. This will help you determine if your dog has a food allergy or intolerance.

Physical Aid and Equipment

There are a ton of different products to help with this. Dogs that are too riled up or stressed can benefit from calming sprays like Calming Dog’s all-natural products. If your dog is sucking on its abdomen or obsessively biting, cones can supplement training to reduce discomfort.

People worry about their dogs pulling and choking themselves or hurting their necks on a leash. Headcollars gently apply pressure from behind the dog’s head to gently “steer” them in the right direction. Long retractable leashes can also help if you want to let your dog explore a little more than a traditional 3-6 foot leash.

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