There is a unique condition that seems to affect the Doberman breed quite frequently which causes them to shake their head rapidly and seemingly uncontrollably. This condition goes by many names including Head Tremors, Head Bobbing Syndrome, Episodic Head Tremor Syndrome, and Idiopathic Head Tremors. But all these terms are referring to the same condition.
Head Bobbing Syndrome, also often called Idiopathic Head Tremors, is a common condition in the Doberman breed where the dog uncontrollably shakes their head side-to-side or up-and-down while remaining fully responsive.
This condition is very unnerving for Doberman owners who have never experienced it before. It has happened to both of my last two Dobermans (both when they were under a year of age), but they outgrew it soon after. Many other Doberman owners have a similar story as this condition is well known in the Doberman world.
Head Tremors (aka “Head Bobbing Syndrome”)
These tremors happen fast and appear to be a “shaking” or “twitching” of the head. It’s very common in the Doberman breed and can be anything from subtle head twitching to violent head shaking, and anything in between.
This is also often called “Episodic Head Tremor Syndrome” since it usually only comes on for short stretches of time, or “Idiopathic Head Tremors” since the cause of these are currently unknown.
At times, this is also accompanied by teeth chattering. But if you’re seeing chattering teeth without any movement in the head, it may not be head-bobbing syndrome. You can find out more in my article all about teeth chattering in Dobermans here.
How Common Are Head Tremors in Dobermans?
Head tremors or head shaking, in the Doberman breed is very common and although their exact cause is unknown, it’s generally believed to be harmless. Many Doberman owners experience head shaking or head bobbing from their dogs and this seems to typically occur when the dog is young (under about a year of age).
Dobermans comprise 8% of all reported cases of this condition (source). Affected Dobermans remain alert, mobile, and responsive during the episode. On average, an episode of head tremors in a Doberman will last about 3 minutes, occur about twice per day, and they will go about 2 months between episodes. The dog, usually young to middle-aged, does not seem to realize he is doing it when it’s occurring.
About two-thirds of owners find that once distracted with a treat or food, the tremors stop (source). A study conducted in Germany found that 20 to 26% of Dobermans seemed to be in distress, ashamed, and seek affection after their Idiopathic Head Tremor episode. This seems to run contrary to other studies that have suggested Dobermans are not aware that an episode is occurring and unaffected by it so this does still leave some questions to be answered in future research.
The duration and frequency of these episodes do vary widely. The table below is based on a study published in the National Library of Medicine on these head tremors in the Doberman breed.
|Duration of Episode||10 seconds||3 minutes||3 hours|
|Frequency of Occurrence||1 per day||2 per day||20 per day|
|Length Between Episodes||1 day||60 days||1800 days|
COMMON HEALTH CONDITIONS: If you want to learn more about common conditions that affect the Doberman breed, see the comprehensive health section of The Complete Doberman Pinscher Breed Overview.
Why Do Head Tremors Occur In Dobermans?
The Doberman Pinscher Club of America (DPCA) has done extensive research into why Doberman experience this condition, otherwise known as “head bobbing syndrome” (available here). Some theories both from the DPCA and others are listed below, however, because of a lack of epidemiological studies, the true nature of the Doberman Head Bobbing Syndrome remains a mystery.
- Theory 1 – In general, tremors are the result of brain abnormalities, often caused by degeneration, toxicity, or inflammation which could also be the cause of these tremors.
- Theory 2 – These tremors are caused by an emerging genetic disease, since Doberman, Labradors, and English Bulldogs are all commonly impacted, and all the underlying causes of tremors could be the result of genetic malformations.
- Theory 3 – The lack of anti-seizure drug receptivity point away from focal epilepsy as a cause, but another possible diagnosis could be stereotypy. Stereotypy is “the abnormal repetition of an action… as seen in some phases of schizophrenia”.
- Theory 4 – Some in the veterinary world believe low glucose levels, calcium deficiency, and heartworm medication may be to blame (source).
There is not enough evidence as of yet to support a solid conclusion as to their root cause, but the anecdotal evidence points to an emerging genetic disease along with these other possible causes.
According to the study cited in the section above published by the National Library of Medicine on 87 affected Dobermans, head tremors are an inherited condition. In that study, affected dogs were actually traced back to one common sire, who also suffered from head tremors, supporting the conclusion that this condition has a heavy genetic influence. However, further research would need to be conducted to identify the specific gene causing the tremors.
Videos of Bobbing Head Syndrome in Dobermans
Below are a few examples of Dobermans experiencing this issue. You’ll see that most owners are fairly relaxed while filming as it’s likely they’ve experienced this before as these episodes generally come more than once in affected Dobermans.
Example Video 1: Typical Head Tremors
Below is another video showing a fairly common example of head tremors or Head Bobbing Syndrome in a Doberman. As you can see, this dog seems otherwise fairly relaxed, which is typical of this issue.
Example Video 2: Large Head Tremors
In the video below you can see another example of these Episodic Head Tremors in a Doberman. This episode seems to be fairly significant in terms of the strength of the shaking. While the shaking may be side-to-side or up-and-down and vary in intensity, they’re always temporary.
Example Video 3: Head Tremors in an Older Doberman
The video below shows what appears to be an older Doberman fairly close up. You can see the subtle side-to-side shaking that appears to be uncontrollable to the dog. Remember these are considered to not be painful to the dog.
What You Can Do to Stop Head Tremors
Although these are almost always something that an owner ultimately just “lives with” in their Doberman as it is generally sporadic and doesn’t seem to cause pain to the dog, it’s still a good idea to record the incident if you can and see your veterinarian. If nothing else, your vet should be able to rule out some of the more serious causes of shaking in your dog, like epilepsy for example.
Many owners have found various ways to stop these incidents while they’re occurring through various techniques. Some of the common ways Doberman owners have stopped the head tremors after they’ve begun are below.
Methods for Stopping the Head Tremors
- Wait Until It Passes – These episodes vary in duration from less than a minute to a few hours, with the average being about three minutes. Many owners will comfort their dogs through petting and reassurance, and simply wait for the episode to pass.
- Distract with a Toy – Offering your Doberman one of their favorite toys and encouraging them to focus on it, or the game you’re playing with it, has been said to help stop the head tremors once they begin. Puzzle toys are great for this. If you need some toy ideas, see my list of the best dog toys for Dobermans.
- Distract with Food – This is probably the most often recommended method recommended by Doberman owners (and possibly most effective). Offering food or a treat might cause the episode to end. In one study this has shown to be effected two-thirds of the time. Many owners claim peanut butter works extremely well for this.
- Distract with a Game – As long as it can be safely done, try to engage in one of your Doberman’s favorite games such as hide and seek or even a “find the treat under the cup” game where they’ll be required to use their mind.
- Use a Training Session – Another form of distraction is begininig a short training session with your Doberman and ask him or her to perform some basic commands that they know really well and provide plenty of praise upon completion. This can be a great mental distractor.
Owners, including myself, have found a lot of success in basically just doing whatever we can to distract our dogs once they start having one of these head-shaking episodes. It’s not entirely clear why this works and actually really just furthers the mystery since this seems to suggest that there is a component of these episodes that’s influenced by the dog’s mental focus and attention.
Is it a Seziure?
It’s easy to confuse this with a seizure since it seems completely involuntary for the dog. The reality is though that a true seizure, such as in epileptic dogs, for example, is a bit different. They’re characterized by seized muscles, lost mobility, and altered consciousness. These are symptoms that are not typical of Head Bobbing Syndrome.
Dogs experiencing a seizure might also drool, bite their own tongue, kick their legs frantically, foam at the mouth, defecate or urinate, and be unstable or unable to walk. Although dogs can experience a seizure in one portion of their body it’s not as common. The video below will give you an example of a Doberman suffering from an epileptic seizure.
Example Video: Epileptic Seizure
By comparing this video of a true seizure to the videos in the previous section of Head Bobbing Syndrome, you should be able to gain a better understanding of the differences. Fair warning that this video is hard to watch.
There are many reasons your Doberman might start shaking, shivering, or trembling. I covered all the possible causes of this in my article 7 Reasons Why Your Doberman is Shaking here. However, if the shaking is localized only in the neck and head area, then it’s likely Head Bobbing Syndrome.
The good news for owners is that although it’s somewhat concerning to witness in your dog, it’s generally considered to be painless for the dog. You’ll likely see occasional short episodes in an affected dog, especially likely when the dog is under about one year of age. Then, as the dog ages, it may continue or may simply go away entirely.
It’s always good to visit your veterinarian and if possible, bring a video recording of the event for them to examine. Hopefully, though, you can relax now knowing the chances are high that the head-shaking your Doberman is experiencing isn’t painful but please do make a trip to your trusted veterinarian to discuss it further.