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Light chasing in dogs is a common behavior. In the latest “Ask A Behavior Consultant,” Kim M. asks:
Can you tell me more about my GSD’s sensitivity and obsession with moving light? Are some dogs more prone to this attraction than others, if so, why? How can it be detrimental to my dog’s health? Are there appropriate outlets for this obsession or is avoidance the best management? TIA!
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What’s Up With Light Chasing In Dogs?
It’s not uncommon for dogs to be obsessed with moving light. It sounds like Kim’s German Shepherd (GSD) is one of the light-chasers, though she doesn’t specify exactly what her dog’s obsession looks like. Kim’s first question asks if some dogs are more prone to this than others. The short answer is yes.
It appears that light chasing in dogs is more common with several types of dogs (though more research needs to be done!):
- Herding breeds. The chasing instinct of herding breeds (Border collies, Australian shepherds, cattle dogs, and others) is very strong. This makes them particularly susceptible to light-chasing obsessions. They’re bred to chase and herd animals all day. Without proper outlets, it’s very easy for these dogs to start “herding” or chasing lights as an obsession.
- Deaf dogs. A quick Google Scholar search doesn’t come up with any documented links between deafness and light-chasing. That said, 7 out of the 7 deaf dogs I’ve worked with recently with chased lights and shadows. Coincidence? Perhaps. Scientists have to look into it more – but perhaps dogs that are missing their hearing are more attuned to visual stimuli. That means they might be more sensitive to light and shadow changes in their life – and more likely to chase the lights.
- Dogs that play with laser pointers. Teaching your puppy that chasing lights is fun is probably the best way to end up with a light and shadow chasing adult dog. This makes sense – chasing a laser pointer is a fun game. Why not also chase the reflections from passing cars? Or the shadows from overhead birds? While many owners think this is a cute game that helps burn off energy, it’s got plenty of negative side effects.
- Bored dogs. Dogs that lack appropriate physical and mental exercise are also more likely to chase lights. They’re looking for something to occupy themselves, and chasing lights is a fun and easy game. Exercising your dog appropriately using one of our 3 schedules can help keep your dog happy and healthy in this case.
A Note On Canine Compulsive Disorder and Light Chasing
There’s some serious speculation that light chasing in dogs is related to Canine Compulsive Disorder, the doggie version of OCD. That said, not all dogs that chase lights necessarily suffer from CCD. This great article explores the links between human OCD and CCD. Set up an appointment with a nearby Veterinary Behaviorist if your dog:
- Chases lights for hours.
- Waits for lights or shadows to appear so that he can chase them.
- Hurts himself as a result of chasing lights.
- Ignores food, water, play, or rest in order to chase lights.
A veterinary behaviorist’s combined knowledge of behavior and medicine will help you come up with a detailed plan to mitigate this obsession. They might even talk to you about medication to help your dog relax and live a normal life. Better safe than sorry!
Is Light Chasing in Dogs Bad for My Dog?
Kim wanted to know if light chasing is bad for her German Shepherd. The short answer is that light chasing in dogs is not a healthy behavior. Even if your dog doesn’t fit the bill for a sufferer of CCD, light chasing isn’t a good thing.
This holds true even if it looks like your dog is having fun – his tail might be wagging as he dives after the reflection from your watch. Some negative side effects of light chasing in dogs include:
- Frustration & Stress. Since light chasing in dogs usually stems from a chasing or hunting instinct, it’s very frustrating for these dogs not to catch their prey. Snapping, digging, or pouncing on light is not very satisfying! While it may alleviate boredom, it’s a game that your dog can’t win. There are plenty of games that help increase your dog’s frustration tolerance. These games can help increase your dog’s impulse control and frustration tolerance. Playing games (like fetch or using a flirt pole) that let your dog actually catch something are much better for getting energy out!
- Confusion. It’s confusing for your dog when the laser pointer, shadow, light, or reflection goes away. Where did his prey go? This doesn’t really happen in a real hunt. Since light and shadow doesn’t leave any scent, your dog has no way of finding it again. This can be confusing for your dog, leading to even more frustration.
- Injury. Some dogs will chase lights and shadows until they hurt themselves. They might break teeth trying to catch the light, tear nails going after shadows, or just hit their head as they chase their imaginary prey. Sound extreme and unlikey? Read this firsthand account of a dog that suffered from exactly this issue.
- Destruction. Dogs that obsessively chase lights might not just hurt themselves, but damage their environment. They might dig at carpet to catch their prey, gnaw on walls to ferret out the “toy,” or otherwise start to destroy your home.
- Obsessing. Dogs that chase lights to the point of ignoring other “good” things in life need help. Dogs that can’t be interrupted from light chasing or ignore good things like food and play might be really tipping over into obsession. And this is not a fun place to be – as the dog or as the owner.
Even if your dog isn’t hurting himself or damaging your home (yet), it’s a good idea to start mitigating his light chasing activities as soon as possible. Don’t panic quite yet – but this isn’t a funny or cute game to play with your dog.
Quick side note – ALL of these negative side effects hold true for cats!
What Should I Do About My Dog’s Light Chasing Obsession?
As with the vast majority of behavioral concerns, my first recommendation is to increase mental and physical exercise. Add in some puzzle toys, training games, a variety of games, and walks with time for sniffing. This will help your dog learn to enjoy other things in life and be less bored.
If your dog is already at a place where she can’t go for a walk without chasing lights and shadows, it’s time to hire a trainer. As stated above, dogs with majorly concerning light-chasing behaviors should see a veterinary behaviorist. They’re worth the money.
Working on increasing your dog’s frustration tolerance and impulse control using my 9 favorite games is another great place to start. Helping your dog learn to think through exciting situations will help him chill out around lights and shadows.
Many dogs won’t be “cured” of their light chasing with just exercise and impulse control! You can always implement some basic behavior modification to reduce light chasing in dogs. Try these 3 options:
- Management. This is the first step in behavior modification. Management is trainer-speak for removing opportunities to do the unwanted thing. In this case, that means making it impossible for your dog to chase lights and shadows. Throw away your laser pointer if you have one. Close your windows when you’re gone and walk your dog on cloudy days. Basically make it impossible for your dog to chase lights and shadows. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt. However, you’re unlikely to succeed in training if your dog spends 8 hours a day chasing lights while you’re at work!
- Redirection. Your dog shouldn’t have many opportunities to chase lights anymore – but it’s nearly impossible to perfectly manage any situation. Life happens. When your management slips up and your dog chases lights, interrupt your dog.
- You can do this by clapping your hands and making a fun sound (kissy sounds, trills, etc) to get your dog’s attention. As soon as he looks at you, offer a favorite toy or treat. You’re rewarding him for looking away from the light and looking at you. Be sure you’ve got some great toys or treats, or your dog might decide chasing the light is more fun. Read more about making your dog want to work with you here.
- If this doesn’t work with your dog’s favorite toys and treats, it’s time to call for help – either a trainer or veterinary behaviorist. For now, try to gently lead your dog away from the light or make the light go away. Don’t drag your dog away – this just makes him more frustrated.
- Do Something Else. Once you’ve gotten your dog’s attention, give him something new to do. This is an important step, or your dog is likely to just dive straight back into the light chasing game. Find something else that’s fun for your dog to do. Play tug, do some training, or just go to another room and give your pup some good scritches. Make sure it’s something your dog likes. Remember, we’re combining a reward with a distraction.
- Flirt poles are a great option. They’re less repetitive than fetch and are less likely to create similar obsession problems (yes, fetch can also be a dangerous obsession – just ask my dog Barley). They’re basically a big fishing pole that you can whip around for your dog to chase and catch. It’s a similar game to light-chasing, but much healthier!
Kim asked if there are any healthy outlets for this obsession. If she wants a healthy way for her German Shepherd to chase lights, I’m afraid I’m stumped.
I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to encourage light chasing in dogs. She could look into any number of dog sports that let her dog chase, herd, or grab physical objects instead. She also can engage in training games or use a flirt pole to let her dog get some energy out without the negative side effects of light chasing.
The bottom line: light chasing in dogs (and cats!) isn’t cute or funny. It’s a frustrating no-win game that has plenty of bad side effects. There are a few basic steps to take to manage the situation, but hiring a trainer is helpful for many dogs.
Kayla grew up in northern Wisconsin and studied ecology and animal behavior at Colorado College. She founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She’s an avid adventurer and has driven much of the Pan-American Highway with her border collie Barley. She now travels the US in a 2006 Sprinter with her two border collies, Barley and Niffler. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams.