Researchers Are Exploring Why Dogs Chase Their Tails

The reasons behind the cute-but-puzzling behavior of why dogs chase their tails is being examined by researchers at England's Bristol Spinning Dog Project.

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Researchers are exploring the causes of tail chasing by dogs. When medical reasons are ruled out, they suspect genetics, personality and environment could determine whether or not a dog chases his tail. Grace Donald/iStock/Thinkstock
Researchers are exploring the causes of tail chasing by dogs. When medical reasons are ruled out, they suspect genetics, personality and environment could determine whether or not a dog chases his tail. Grace Donald/iStock/Thinkstock

My friends and I always got a kick out of seeing my dog Candy chase her tail. We laughed as she tried with all her might to capture what she must have perceived as her opponent in some never-ending game. It’s a sight that practically all dog owners have witnessed.

To me, Candy always seemed happy and super hyper running in circles, but I never gave much thought as to why she was doing it; what innate trait did she possess that made her want to attack her tail?

Well, now, thanks to a group of scientists from the Bristol Spinning Dog Project, this phenomenon is being explored and we might just learn why dogs love chasing their tails so much.

The study’s principle researcher is Bethany Loftus, a third-year PhD candidate in clinical veterinarian sciences at the University of Bristol. She is leading a group of researchers who will collect urine samples and cheek swabs to determine if chemical makeup has anything to do with it. The study will also include training tasks to assess a dog’s personality and his or her ability to learn.

“Our goal is to understand the welfare implications for spinning behavior in dogs and to investigate personality characteristics that may underlie development of this behavior,” Loftus says. “There is no evidence to suggest that spinning indicates poor welfare, which is the reason for doing this study. We hope that our results will give us a better indication of whether we should be concerned about spinning behavior.”

Over the next two years, the study will involve 120 dogs broken up into two groups: 60 dogs who chase their tail very often, and 60 dogs not known for chasing their tail that often, or ever.

“The dogs will be tested on two behavior-training tasks that measure a characteristic termed ‘perseveration.’ Both these tests measure how much a dog persists with a previous behavior response when it is no longer rewarded,” Loftus says. “The dogs will also complete a judgment bias task that measures how optimistic or pessimistic the dog is, and a urine sample will be collected in order to determine levels of urinary cortisol, an important hormone involved in the stress response system. These tests combined give us an indication of how spinning is related to the welfare state of the dog.”

The researchers believe that the tail-chasing behavior develops from personality and genetics, or the environment during a dog’s first 16 weeks.

“The reasons for this behavior developing is a combination of the dog’s genetics, early life experiences and experiences throughout life,” Loftus says. “Spinning sometimes occurs in response to situations in which the dog is prevented from performing normal behavior, and therefore it may be a response to stress. Spinning can also occur as an attention-seeking behavior, or during positive interactions with people — such as when playing.”

It’s interesting to think that Candy was looking for attention when chasing her tail, but it’s not something I ever really considered. To me, she seemed to just enjoy the nonsensical activity.

While the study is being completed, Loftus recommends that any owner worrying about their dog chasing his tail should seek advice from their vet to check that there are no underlying medical causes.

“If medical problems are ruled out, advice should be sought from a qualified behaviorist such as those found on the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior website,” she says.

Currently, the researchers are still recruiting European-based owners whose dogs chase their tails or spin in circles, and also owners whose dogs do not display these behaviors. Any dog of any breed, age and sex is able to contribute, provided he or she is fit and healthy. To be considered for the project, email spinningdog-study@bristol.ac.uk

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Dogs

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