Dogs with fixations (part 2)

10 signs your dog has a fixation

Note: This is part two of a three-part series on my dog’s tennis ball obsession. Click these links to read part one, My mutt has a fixation, and part three, Breaking Ace’s fixation.

Dogs develop fixations for many reasons, often as a result of a lack of exercise, no leadership or boredom. A fixation is literally an addiction or obsession, and many dogs with one fixation have other fixations. Take my mutt for example. His first obsession is a ball. But if you take away the ball, he immediately moves all his energy to either a new toy, a stick, a piece of trash, or he begins an obsessive search to find that original ball.

Other fixations dogs might develop are squirrels, cats, bikes, strollers, gopher holes, lights, Frisbees, shadows, small dogs, roller blades, toys, food, water, chasing their tails or licking their bodies. Really, it could be anything. Just because a dog likes to play fetch (like the one in this photo), doesn’t mean she has a fixation. A fixation goes beyond normal dog behavior and becomes an obsession that is not only extremely annoying, but a problem for the dog.

Here are 10 signs your dog could have a fixation:

1. Your dog gets a glazed look in her eyes.

As soon as a Ace sees a ball, he becomes totally focused on it. His face actually changes, and he almost can’t break a stare from that ball no matter what. He even seems to hold his breath. Food, attention, his favorite people and other dogs do nothing to break his concentration from that ball. This can happen with dogs that are fixated on anything else, such as attacking or chasing a squirrel. All that matters to them is catching that squirrel and that’s where all their energy is focused. Trying to pull them away only intensifies their energy to go after the squirrel even more.

2. Your dog shows no response to commands.

Ace will respond to sit and down when there is a ball involved and that is about it. And both are done without breaking a stare from the ball. He simply can’t focus enough to respond to commands he has to put any thought into. And if I call him while he’s going after a ball, it is a lost cause until he first retrieves the ball. Again this could be the same way with a dog fixated on a small animal.

3. Your dog hurts herself.

Some dogs will throw themselves against a fence trying to catch a cat. Others will dig and dig until their paws bleed. Some might chew their bodies obsessively until their skin is raw. In Ace’s case, he will retrieve a ball continuously even if he injures himself in the process. He has cut his feet on ice and continued to run with bloody paws, not stopping until I noticed his injury. The same happened when he sprained his paw. He continued to run, oblivious to pain until the ball was put away. Then he limped.

4. Your dog puts herself in danger.

A fixated animal will chase the object into a busy street, into fire, over a ledge. She could hang herself by climbing a fence and getting her collar caught. She might chase another animal that then decides to fight rather than flee. My biggest concern with Ace is that he will some day chase a ball right into the road and get hit by a car.

5. Nothing else seems to matter to your dog.

Ace will not accept food if a ball is in sight. He will rarely stop to go to the bathroom, and he shows no response to verbal or physical praise. He will run himself to exhaustion where he is about to collapse, and he still will not take even a few seconds to pause for a drink.

6. Your dog lacks normal social skills.

The dog park is the best example of this. A normal, balanced dog will run and play with the other dogs. But a dog with a fixation will only care about what she is fixated on. Perhaps your husky is fixated on small dogs. Well, then all she will do at the dog park is pace along the fence trying to get at the smaller dogs on the other side. When Ace is at the dog park, all he does is run around and find a ball, and then bring it to me. No other dogs matter to him. He doesn’t know how to play with them. The other dogs actually ignore him because they can tell he is not normal. If another dog picks up on Ace’s lack of social skills and tries to dominate him by mounting him, Ace just stands there, continuing to stare at the ball. How’s that for embarrassing?

7. Your dog has pent-up energy.

Usually a fixation begins when a dog doesn’t get enough exercise. The fixation becomes the one way the dog knows how to use all her excess energy. A dog left home indoors all day might become obsessed with chasing birds and rabbits once she gets outside. Or maybe she becomes obsessed with chasing a ball because she never gets a walk. One of the beginning steps to helping a dog overcome an obsession is to increase her exercise to an hour of running a day while wearing a dog backpack.

8. Your dog’ body posture/energy shifts when she sees that object.

Just like Ace’s facial expression changes when he sees a ball, his whole body changes. He freezes, stiffens and remains tense, even holding his breath. He stops panting. Only his eyes move, following wherever that ball goes.

9. Your dog doesn’t get leadership or discipline from her owner.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with my dog was not setting rules for when to quit playing ball. I never allowed the game of fetch indoors, but outside, I encouraged Ace’s retrieving. It was cute and he always stayed by me if he had a ball. His obsession might’ve been kept under control had I set some limitations earlier on and kept the ball playing to five minutes at a time. Instead, we played fetch for a half-hour or more at times. Now he will not quit unless I put the ball in a closet. Even if I throw the ball over a fence or put it in my backpack or the trunk of my car, he will obsessively search for that ball.

10. Your dog loses common sense.

A fixated dog does not notice when she is too hot or cold. During the winter, I know Ace would chase a ball even if he got frostbitten feet or started to become hypothermic. The same is true in the summer. I have to stop Ace or he will overheat. I know he won’t stop chasing a ball before developing hyperthermia because he has come close. Like I said above, fixated dogs put themselves in danger and do not notice pain or discomfort. They will also do things they won’t normally do, such as act aggressive or bark obsessively. For example, a dog fixated on food might bite her owner if he tries to take her bowl away.

Does your dog have a fixation?

Click these links to read part one, My mutt has a fixation, and part three, Breaking Ace’s fixation.

20 thoughts on “Dogs with fixations (part 2)”

  1. Yeah, my mutt had the same thing when she was very young. Take away ball, fixate on stick. Take away stick, fixate on frisbee…etc. Number 10 is a good one to remember – she would get soaked when I threw her ball into the Pacific and be shivering…I’d have to stop and dry her off inside or else she would certainly become ill!

    Apryl DeLanceys last blog post..Sunday Sports Wrap – August 3, 2008

  2. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha, yeah, it’s a pretty fine line, Lora. Most labs love retrieving in a healthy way. I like how you called it “affection” for toys and balls. Ha.

  3. ha! i was about to say the exact same thing until i scrolled down and realized you guys said it for me. wacky dog blogger esp.

    K9 Amigas last blog post..Featuring…

  4. Interesting read…some of those descriptions are exactly what Morph does when he sees a tennis ball…I think he is just obsessed with them though lol

    Emilys last blog post..Woohoo, we have weight loss!

  5. This is one problem I dont have, but my friends lab/cattle dog cross does… he will chase and fix on anything…

    at the beach its rocks, if you dont throw them (which we dont as hes lost teeth from them) he will fix on one and just repeatedly bark at it…the trouble we have is strangers throw them for him…. hes now an old dog and his rock chasing days are over but did drive his owner nuts at the time

    Abz&Chelss last blog post..I Am Beautiful

  6. Great info, thank you! My dog is fixated on ME. Anybody have any experience with this one? It’s quite frustrating, esp. since nobody takes it seriously – I always hear “aww, she’s so attentive” and “it’s good she’s paying attention to you” but I can see it isn’t healthy for her. And it’s no fun for me to be the ball… 🙂

  7. Lindsay Stordahl

    If you live with others, I recommend they take on some responsibilities with the dog, such as walking her, feeding her, obedience training, so she starts to see she can get attention from others too. She probably competes with them for you, so it’s up to you to set rules for her and really elevate the status of all the others you live with.

    I would also work on calming exercises with her and practicing “stay.”

    If there’s a toy or food she loves, have everyone you know give her a small treat when she looks at them or get them to throw the toy for her.

  8. Allan S. Thomas

    One day I was in our back yard with OSCAR (my 4-month old mixed breed), when I noticed him moving a medium sized rock with his legs and paws. He would move the rock three to four feet in one direction and then switch to another direction while barking, howling and bitting the rock. When I tried to take the rock away he would growl and snap at me. At first I thought this was fun entertainment but then it continued on for 1/2 hour or so. On another day, I hid his rock and he found another one and proceeded to push and pull it around the yard. I had never seen a dog behave this way before and thought “This is got to be some kind of fixation”. Oscar had never done this with his chew toys or balls or anything else and so I thought to check the internet to see if other pet owners had experienced this problem with their pets.
    Allan T.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes, there are other dogs with this kind of fixation. You should try to find the episode of the Dog Whisperer where the dog is fixated on rocks. It’s very similar to my dog’s tennis ball obsession. It’s unhealthy for a dog to act this way, so I recommend correcting this behavior and providing him with other outlets for his energy like long walks while wearing a backpack, obedience work and structured retrieving games. I realize this is much easier said than done!

  9. The step fixation was a phase he went through as a puppy, but he later grew out of it. He was a Border Collie/Labrador cross, so he was very intelligent. Out of this breed’s natural environment of being a working dog herding sheep, he had to apply his intelligence to something.

  10. Yeah unfortunately that’s where a lot of fixations come from. I’m convinced Ace is nutty over a ball because he wasn’t given any exercise or training for his first year. That, and all labs are crazy about retrieving anyway, as they should be.

  11. I own a dogwalking,daycare and boarding business. I foster and rehome dogs, I have 10 of my own rescue dogs, I am constantly interacting and learning about the dogs I have on a daily basis which can be up to 20 a day and without blowing my own trumpet have a wide experience of dogs, I have also just enrolled on a 3 year degree equivalent dog behaviourism course – however one of the dogs I look after is totally fixated with her owner, yes not a toy or rock or food its her owner. Her behaviour is horrendous, absolute constant high pitch load whining, howling, pacing, weeing until he is with her, she has no interest in the other dogs just spends her time looking for him, the only time she stops is when she sleeps and that isn’t a guarantee. the dog is a 2year old welsh springer with epilepsy, the owners are elderly, the wife has dementure, when she was a pup he sat up all night every night with her for 3 months as she was so ill and this is where the problems started, he wants to rehome her but I know she’ll end up coming back, hes not the easiest owner and can be very rude to me but I feel for him, his situation and jess as he loves her very much but is at the end of his tether, and when I say constant whining it is CONSTANT, I won’t have her stay with me for daycare any longer or boarding (which is in my house), she eventually settles in my van for walking but only because she knows she goes home after walk – I really want to help this man and don’t know where to start – ANY ideas would be grateful but not the normal tried old methods because believe me we’ve done everything we can think of – Many many thanks in advance – Janine Woodland Dogs Ltd

  12. Thanks for this! My chi had always loved stuffed animals atfirst it was fine. Then she started getting aggressive. We got her over that And i thought she was better. She even started playing normal and leaving her animals to enjoy other things. Then she started obsessing over choice toys. Laying in a corner for hours not eating, not Playing, not obeying. Sometimes just walking around whining. I take it away and she’ll cry and mope. She gets over it and back to normal after a while. I was getting really worried. I will be upping her excercise and taking her outside more. Also making sure i spend enough time with her too. Thanks again

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