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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


4 February 2014

Stereotypical dogs: repetitive and pointless?

"I'm a labrador" does not = "I'm hungry" (source)
Hey Julie,

it's great to get an updated view of what's on the canine science cards for you in 2014 - looks like we're both going to be keeping busy - and wouldn't have it any other way!

I can't believe we're already into February, to be honest. There are so many great new publications coming out, it's quite exciting to be able to share them with you here! You know I'm always thinking about the welfare of kennelled dogs (because PhD!) and I noticed a new study from the University of Bristol titled Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? (reference given below). Now of course, you know we're not talking about "all labradors are greedy" or "all little dogs are yappy" kind of stereotypes here, we're talking about describing a specific type of behaviour.

I know you're interested in stereotypical animal behaviour too, so I wanted to share this with you! As you know, stereotypical behaviours have traditionally be thought of as repetitive and invariant behaviour patterns with no obvious goal or function

Typical stereotypies that many people would be familiar with, include elephants in zoos/circuses swinging their trunks and/or swaying side to side; horses 'weaving' in stables; and bears route tracing when in captivity:

In these situations, it's generally understood that the behaviour is the result of the animal feeling frustrated, fearful, restrained, stressed or lacking stimulation and when seen frequently, is often considered an indicator of poor welfare. 

Determining whether such behaviours are 'without function' has proven difficult. Research over the past decade has shed more light on the reasons animals might develop these behaviour patterns, and suggests that performing the behaviour is not always without a function, but can actually serve a role in helping animals to cope. We have discovered that the animals showing frequent stereotypical behaviour may not be the individuals suffering the most (you know that old saying - it's the quiet ones you've got to watch!).  

As such, a refined definition better separates 'abnormal repetitive behaviours' from 'stereotypical behaviours' (which are considered to be caused by inadequate housing that causes frustration and may be overcome with appropriate change of environment including social and/or environmental enrichment). 

Dog-focussed research in this area has shown that kennelled dogs kept in restricted environments (such as laboratories or rescue shelters) may show behaviour as pacing, circling, spinning, wall bouncing or barking:

The new research from Bristol set out to investigate if every dog observed in a working dog facility showing repetitive behaviour could really be described as stereotypical (which would suggest they were experiencing compromised welfare). 

The researchers examined the behaviour and physiology (using the urine's cortisol/creatinine ratio) of 30 German Shepherd Police dogs. They saw repetitive behaviours in over 40% of the behavioural samples in response to ten deliberately arousing activities (such as a kennel staff member standing outside the kennel yard, clicking the clip of a leash - indicating exercise time; or a full food bowl being placed outside the front of the kennel enclosure; or a stranger walking through the kennel complex). Only two individual dogs were not observed performing any repetitive behaviour.

The study confirmed that dogs housed in kennel facilities long-term commonly exhibit repetitive behaviours when presented with a variety of routine activities as stimuli; also showing that individual dogs differ in the way that they respond.Some dogs only engaged in repetitive behaviours only during husbandry events when a person was there. Most dogs showed more than one of: circle, spin, bounce, pace, generally in some kind of combination (the spin and bounce as shown in video above was the most common combination seen). 

But, if these repetitive behaviours are only happening with certain triggers when people are present - are they truly stereotypical and indicative of poor welfare? 

DogKennelJump on Make A Gif
The behavioural & physiological responses were able to be grouped statistically, showing 17% of the dogs demonstrated repetitive behaviour during periods of minimal stimulation AND had a different physiological profile from the rest of the population. Interpreting this isn't easy though.

There's still uncertainty whether chronic stress in dogs increases or decreases the responsiveness of the HPA system, and it may be that this is different for dogs of different personality types, historical backgrounds and/or affective states. It could be that the dogs have been externally rewarded (intentionally or unintentionally), and so the behaviours have been reinforced.

This study has highlighted the complexities of trying to understand repetitive behaviour in kennelled dogs and recognises there is unlikely to be a single reason behind apparent stereotypies. 

It certainly shows us that the relationship between such behaviours and their welfare status (and in my mind also - how this impacts on their work performance) requires further scientific investigation. And that it's important, not repetitive and pointless at all.

I'd best get back to reviewing my PhD data then, hey?!
Hope you're keeping well,


Further reading:

Denham H.D.C., Bradshaw J.W.S. & Rooney N.J. (2014). Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not?, Physiology & Behavior, DOI:

Mason G. & NR L. (2004). Can't stop, won't stop: is stereotypy a reliable welfare indicator?, Animal Welfare, 13 S57-S70. Link: click here for abstract

Mason G.J. (1991). Stereotypies: a critical review, Animal Behaviour, 41 (6) 1015-1037. DOI: 

Dallaire A. (1993). Stress and Behavior in Domestic Animals: Temperament as a Predisposing Factor to Stereotypies, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 697 (1 Corticotropin) 269-274. DOI:

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2014
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