What’s Up With Light Chasing In Dogs?

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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, 100% deaf dogs I’ve worked with recently chased lights and/or 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 to meet welfare needs. 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 severe 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 that 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.

18 thoughts on “What’s Up With Light Chasing In Dogs?”

  1. My dog has started to be mildly obsessed with shadows when birds fly over or shadows from bugs. Today I think he guarded a shadow at the dog park and snapped at a dog. ):

    I don’t have any veterinarian Behaviorists in my area, do you have any suggedtions?

    • That sounds pretty serious! If you’d like to get on a call to discuss some options, I’m always here doing remote consults. You can also email me and I’ll try to help find a trainer local to your area. Last option is that most vet behaviorists will do over-the-phone-consults with your own vet, so you can gain their expertise from anywhere in the world.

  2. In terms of healthy outlets for light chasing, what about rubber light up balls? That provides something tangible for the dog to grab and relieve frustration and can help transition a dog back to toys by phasing our the light up ball with another ball.

    • That’s a great question, Winnie! In general, if a dog doesn’t have issues with light-chasing already, I don’t see an issue with toys like that. But if the dog already has issues with light-chasing or the toy seems to be making the dog more anxious/active, then it might be time to cut it out!

  3. My rott mix has been doing this for awhile I got medication from my vet to help but after awhile it seem to stop working, he literally sits and starts at walls for hours and chases them whenever he sees them, I cant take him on walks or anywhere really, when I let him outside in the back yard instead of playing with the other dogs he literally sits in one spot doesnt move and just waits for shadows and lights, idk what to do at this point.

  4. My french bulldog does this a lot. It breaks my heart he’s only 1 and a half and he’s done it since he was 6 months old. He’s now started shaking like he’s cold. I’ve tried everything except meds.

    • Clare, I’d urge you to speak to your vet about meds. If he’s shaking, it’s possible there’s something neurologic going on and he may be in pain – or danger – if you continue neglecting that need.

  5. I have a lab that likes to chase the flashlight light I don’t use it during the day. I walk him to the field at night and let him chase the light for 10 min I let him catch the light when we are done we go for a walk and back home. He waits to go at night to play. Is there a problem with that

    • Hi Darrel – if you’re not observing a problem, then it might not be an issue. I would err on the side of playing with a toy instead, but if it’s working for you it’s not necessarily a problem.

  6. Hi I have Murphy a sprocker spaniel who loves shadows but it’s much worse outside as he constantly barks at them. It’s becoming a real issue as it scares people especially kids. Any advice would be fantastic! Thank you Catherine

  7. Hi Catherine, I have a rottweiler X cocker spaniel, now 6, who came to me as a rescue at 2 and a half. Due to being locked in a shed and starved, he developed severe light / shadow chasing. Sunny days mean I shut my curtains. However, I really understand the barking at shadows and light outdoors, and I believe it was as distressing for my boy as much as for myself and others. He would lick walls and claw at walls too. Buddy is walked 4 miles every morning – so we’re out for about an hour and 45 mins, and then he has a shorter walk in the afternoon / evening. Every time he would pounce and bark at shadows, I would call him back, give him lots of praise and a treat, and put his lead on. After 5 mins of lead walking, I would release him. He quickly realised that the barking meant a stint on the lead – never in a punishing or angry manner, just as if I was putting him back on near roads etc. Recall was ALWAYS rewarded. Buddy no longer barks frantically at lights / shadows when we’re out. He does still show interest, but he’s a much calmer boy now. I hope this helps.

  8. Hi I have a 2 year old Cockapoo who chases leaves and anything blowing about in the wind. She has really good recall but if its windy is a nightmare on walks and doesn’t take any notice of anything I say or do

  9. I have an 6 month old German shepherd and when he was a puppy we were playing a laser game with him for about a week and since then he is chasing shadows, lights, reflections and similar. When no one is around he’s not that much focused on shadows and he’s playing with our husky or sniffing around, but the moment someone gets out of house he starts chasing. He doesn’t always listen when I call him because he is busy with “hunting”, but he always comes when I raise the tone.

    Any suggestions how to stop this?


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