Supervisor:   Dr Rowena PackerDr Maria Diez Leon

Department:  Clinical Science and Services


Project Details

Background: A range of behaviours termed ‘abnormal repetitive’, ‘restricted repetitive’, or ‘stereotypic’  spontaneously occur in captive animals (farm, zoo, laboratory), in some human neurodevelopmental disorders e.g. autism, and in companion animals. Increasing evidence suggests that these behaviours, collectively known under the generic term abnormal repetitive behaviours (ARB), are the product of central nervous system dysfunction. Domestic dogs show a variety of ARBs in a range of contexts; however, data on the prevalence of ARBs in the companion dog population is scarce or incomplete. Although not yet systematically studied, some breed predispositions to ARB are reported in veterinary clinical literature, including flank-sucking in Doberman Pinschers, spinning and/or tail chasing in German Shepherds and Staffordshire Bull Terriers and visual fixations such as shadow and/or light chasing in Border Collies. Reasons for these differences are not yet understood, but have been hypothesized to be related to original breed function e.g. herding.

As part of a wider project exploring the phylogenetic, functional and environmental basis of ARBs in dogs, this MRes project aims to elucidate risk factors for visually-mediated ARBs (e.g. chasing or staring at lights and shadows). Light chasing has been defined as “an intense focus or chasing of lights to which most dogs would not usually attend”. This ARB has been associated with significantly elevated dopamine transporter striatal-to-brain ratio in a single case study, but is poorly studied and understood.

Study objectives: 

  • To design a questionnaire to capture data describing the presence and severity of visually-mediated ARBs in dogs, including data on relevant health, genetic and environmental risk factors
  • To collect questionnaire data from a large international sample (minimum n=3000 dogs) of dog owners
  • To describe the morphology, variability and prevalence of visually-mediated ARBs in dogs and describe breed differences
  • To identify risk factors for visually-mediated ARBs including genetic and environmental factors

Plan of investigation: A detailed survey will be designed to capture data on light and shadow-chasing ARBs in dogs. Data will be collected from both owners of dogs who perform ARBs, and owners of dogs who do not, to allow estimation of prevalence and identify breed predispositions. To enable this, the study recruitment activities and materials will be intentionally generic as not to bias towards owners of dogs performing the behaviours of interest. Recruitment will be conducted via a variety of routes including online owner groups, veterinary practices and via the Kennel Club. Dogs of all breeds and cross-breeds will be eligible to participate; however, data will only be analysed for breeds represented by >50 individuals for prevalence estimates and breed comparisons.  Data from the overall sample will be analysed to identify genetic risk factors (breed, genetic breed-grouping, functional breed-groups e.g. Kennel Club) and environmental risk factors (e.g. early life physical and social environment, training, husbandry). Data on health status will be collected to identify potential co-morbidities e.g. epilepsy, gastrointestinal disease, and data from the wider project will be used to identify co-morbidities with other ARBs e.g. tail chasing.



  1. Hall, N.J., A. Protopopova, and C.D.L. Wynne, The role of environmental and owner-provided consequences in canine stereotypy and compulsive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2015. 10(1): p. 24-35.

  2. Vermeire, S., et al., A Cavalier King Charles dog with shadow chasing: Clinical recovery and normalization of the dopamine transporter binding after clomipramine treatment. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2010. 5(6): p. 345-349.

  3. Wrzosek, M., et al., Retrospective multicenter evaluation of the “fly-catching syndrome” in 24 dogs: EEG, BAER, MRI, CSF findings and response to antiepileptic and antidepressant treatment. Epilepsy & Behavior, 2015. 53: p. 184-189.

  4. Tiira, K., et al., Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. PloS one, 2012. 7(7): p. e41684-e41684.



Applicants should have a first or second class university honours degree in biological sciences or a veterinary degree.

This project is full-time and commences in October 2021, based at RVC's Hawkshead campus, however much of this work can be conducted remotely.



This is currently a self-funded project. The MRes student will be expected to pay for their course fees and living expenses.

For information on the Postgraduate Master's Loan please follow the link:


We welcome informal enquiries - these should be directed to Dr Rowena Packer on


How to Apply

For more information on the application process and English Language requirements see How to Apply.

Deadline: 23/03/2021

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