Thus far, research by Dodman and Moon-Fanelli strongly suggests that compulsive spinning is hereditary in Bull Terriers. Dodman and Moon-Fanelli’s work has even shown that the trait occurs more in some Bull Terrier families than others and is expressed in dogs who have never been with another tail-chasing dog, which suggests that the behavior is inherent, not learned.
Luckily, having a hereditary predisposition does not necessarily mean that the disorder will show up. Environmental stress increases the odds of a compulsive disorder being expressed, and it may wax and wane based on stress, which can take many forms. Some dogs have a strong genetic predisposition but no stressful event is seen prior to onset, whereas with others a clearly stressful event is associated with the onset.
Luescher gives an example.“I had one case, a 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy who used to show mild aggression to the owner. A traditional force-based trainer showed the owner how to give a ‘proper’ choke chain correction. The puppy temporarily acted less aggressive, but then two days later, he suddenly started chasing his tail for many hours a day.” The stress of the force-based training had precipitated the behavior.
In other cases, the stress may involve kenneling, traveling, a change in the owner’s schedule or the addition of a new person to the household.Moon-Fanelli considers that, for dogs with a strong genetic component, “the stress may be relatively mild. These dogs can’t cope with things that a normal dog can handle.” She has seen Bull Terriers who spontaneously started chasing the sound of running water or microwave bells— the owner can’t wash dishes, flush the toilet or use the microwave because these sounds trigger the dog’s spinning.
In some cases, the condition can progress quickly to the point where it completely disrupts the human-pet bond. Moon-Fanelli describes such a situation. “I had one case, a Bull Terrier named Fletcher, who began spinning suddenly at five months without an identifiable trigger. The first day, they thought it was puppy tail-chasing. Then the next day, he chased for an hour but could easily be distracted. Then, coinciding with this, they had to leave him with a pet sitter for the weekend.When they came back, he was spinning nonstop.” The owner, who was a veterinarian, tried temporary treatment with sedatives in the hopes of immediately controlling the intense spinning. This made the dog wobbly but didn’t stop his spinning.The usual treatments for compulsive disorders, such as Prozac®, a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, combined with environmental enrichment, also had no effect. Says Moon- Fanelli,“They couldn’t get it under control so they had to euthanize. It was distressing to them and to the other dogs in the household.He did not have any quality of life.”
Most cases don’t progress this quickly. Rather, they may have a long history of being rewarded. Says Luescher, “A common case is that people start playing with lasers or flashlights and the dog chases the light. This is normal.But then, as the owners encourage the dog, it gets out of hand and the dog starts to go after lights reflecting off surfaces. So the behavior is no longer context-specific.” Says Moon-Fanelli, “With Doberman flank-sucking, most owners think it’s cute and give their dogs blankets.” The dogs ingest little portions of blanket regularly. It’s not irritating like spinning, and although the duration may be long, it occurs at night or other times when the dog is resting so it doesn’t noticeably disrupt the dog’s normal activity.As a result, owners equate it with thumb-sucking. Adds Fanelli,“Because it’s nondisruptive, owners don’t care until the dog ingests her blanket and has to have surgery.”
Diagnosis and Treatment