Why Do Dogs Chase Shadows?

Dogs chase shadows often out of boredom, just for fun, attention, or even as an obsession. Regardless of the underlying reason, one thing is for sure: it's not a behavior you want to encourage-and by encouraging this includes looking at your dog, talking to your dog, laughing or doing anything that your dog perceives as attention, even if it's attention of the negative type.

Watching a dog chase shadows may seem like a peculiar  behavior, but after all, it starts making sense once we obtain a deeper understanding of what causes dogs to sometimes behave in odd ways. How old is the dog engaging in shadow-chasing? What breed is he? How is the dog's lifestyle? When does the behavior occur? Answers to these questions can provide important details which work as small puzzle pieces completing the whole picture. 

Shadows From a Dog's Perspective

Let's face it: as intelligent as dogs are, they lack the ability to rationally explain certain phenomena that occur in the world around them. Dogs therefore fail to understand thunder, they don't understand vacuum cleaners and they don't understand that noisy garbage truck that collects waste every Friday. 

While you know that storms are the result of changes in the atmospheric pressure, and that the vacuum or trash truck, albeit noisy, are not monsters on wheels, dogs cannot rationally understand all these scary happenings that are part of their worlds and often appear unexpectedly. 

In a similar fashion, dogs do not understand reflections and shadows. Reflections and shadows from their perspective can be odd things that move and stimulate their drive to chase or they may be scary things to avoid at all costs, especially when shadows appear unexpectedly or reflections are seen on shiny floors or metal bowls. 

Did you know? Puppies may fear their metal bowls if their breeders haven't exposed them to them from an early age or if they got startled upon moving them around while eating or upon seeing their reflections on the metal surface.  

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Dogs cannot rationally comprehend shadows and why they move

Exploring the World

 Is the dog chasing shadows a puppy? A young puppy who is exploring the world around him may find shadows, leaves blown by the wind and butterflies irresistible stimuli to chase. Older dogs who "know it all" have surely outgrown this quirk as they did with playing with their tails, sampling their poop and nipping their owners' arms and legs.

Here's the thing: when dogs are young, they perceive the world around them like a big playground, sort of like children do. Just as a baby or toddler is attracted to those nightlight projectors displaying stars, planets and rainbows across the wall or ceiling, puppies are attracted to  lights and shadows. 

This exploration phase is generally short-lived. Just as puppies outgrow chasing their tails, with time, their habit of chasing shadows should gradually fade as they gain interest in more salient stimuli around them such as the noise of kibble being poured in a bowl or watching what happens over the fence. 

However, sometimes puppies may get "somewhat stuck" in a behavior pattern and reluctant to get over it. This may happen if they have unmet needs or if their owners have been inadvertently reinforcing it.

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Dogs with a high prey drive have a strong urge for chasing anything that moves

Lack of Stimulation  

If you look at your dog's body carefully, you will notice how it was built for the purpose of chasing. Dogs are cursorial animals after all (along with cats, horses, wolves and gazelles) which means that they were made for running.

Running for what purpose though? In the case of prey animals such as horses and gazelles, running away from predators. In the case of predators such as cats, wolves and dogs, running after prey animals. 

On top of this, dogs are also digitigrades, meaning that they walk on their toes. We often think of a dog's front and back paws as their hands and feet, when in reality we are mainly looking at their toes. Indeed, those bones that correspond to our wrists and ankles are set much higher than we might think!

The main perk of animals who walk on their toes is the fact that they can walk around more quietly and they can gain faster speeds, explains Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D Information Specialist University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

And then you have those dog eyes. A dog's eyes are crafted to capture the slightest movements even in dim lights so it comes as no surprise why he might be attracted to reflective lights and shadows. 

With a body crafted to chase, it's normal for dogs to be on the lookout for things to run after. It's something they are drawn to like magnets despite being domesticated animals, especially in dogs with high prey drives. 

Of course, objects to chase become more and more appealing if dogs aren't provided with sufficient outlets for their instinctive needs. This means that, to a bored dog, who lacks stimulation (through brain games, training, walks, exercise, play food-dispensing toys etc.) shadows may offer an appealing opportunity they do not want to pass just because they have nothing better to do. 

A Need for Attention

Some dogs crave lots of attention. Often, these dogs are dogs who bond strongly to their humans and thrive on companionship. If owners work all day, these dogs may yearn attention, to the point where ANY form of attention is better than no attention. 

What does this mean to dog owners? It means that it's important to recognize how attention can inadvertently reinforce behaviors that we might not want to see too often in our dog's behavioral repertoire. 

So it may happen one day that Rover is more and more annoyed because every single day he waits for his owner's return after a long day at work, but once home, all his owner does is ignore him, sitting on the couch staring at the T.V.  like a zombie.

Frustrated and feeling neglected, Rover therefore tries a variety of behaviors to experiment what can grab his owner's attention. So he barks, nothing. Chases his tail, nothing. Then, he notices the reflection of his owner's watch on the wall and he starts chasing it. His owner giggles and talks to him finally, saying: "Rover, are you out of your mind? What's up with you!"

 Amused by the owner's reaction, the dog gains a new interest in reflections, so he is constantly looking for them throughout the day and even finds them entertaining when the owner is away. A new hobby is born. 

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An idle mind combined with an impoverished environment can make lights and shadows very appealing

A Concerning Obsession

Sometimes, dogs take certain hobbies to a whole new level, turning them into an obsession. In behavioral terms, obsessions in dogs fall under what's known as Canine Compulsive Disorder (CD) since we cannot prove whether dogs are really capable of experiencing obsessive thoughts. 

For a good reason many dog trainers advise dog owners not to use laser lights with their dogs: the light- chasing behavior can easily get out of hand. Of course, this doesn't happen with all dogs, but some dogs are more predisposed to compulsive disorders. 

Repetitive behaviors such as tail chasing, spinning or chasing lights or shadows on the floor with no particular purpose are considered stereotypical behaviors. Stereotypical behaviors are seen in cases of space restriction, excessive isolation, over-stimulation or under-stimulation and in dogs raised in impoverished environments.

Stereotypical behaviors may therefore be associated with emotions such as prolonged boredom, stress or anxiety, frustration and conflict. As time goes by, and the behavior attains a strong reinforcement history, it becomes more and more established up to the point where the dog may be barely to completely non-responsive to the dog owner's attempts to interrupt the behavior. 

What keeps such stereotypical behaviors alive? The behavior is often maintained by the fact that it's ultimately self-reinforcing, possibly due to providing an outlet, a coping mechanism (if you will) for boredom, frustration or anxiety and sometimes there may be even an associated endorphin release at play. 

Did you know?  According to a study, a dog suffering from compulsive shadow chasing was found to have alterations in the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system, which is in line with human and animal obsessive compulsive disorder studies. The onset of compulsive behavior in dogs generally occurs when dogs are under 12 months of age. Predisposed breeds include Border Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Rottweilers, and Wire-Haired Fox Terriers, all breeds known for having high prey drive. Source: Veterinary Information Network

"Laser toys can present a problem to some dogs, who can become frustrated if they are unable to achieve a desired outcome (catch the light). Some of these animals develop compulsive or obsessive light and shadow chasing."~Debra Horwitz, Gary Landsberg, veterinary behaviorists.

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have several reasons for chasing shadows. If your dog chases shadows, you want to nip this behavior in the bud before it puts roots and establishes. Following are some tips on how to stop a dog from chasing shadows, although it's important to point out that if your dog's shadow-chasing behavior is getting out of hand, you may need the intervention of a dog behavior professional (DACVB, CAAB) using force-free behavior modification. 

  • Have your dog see the veterinarian. It is important to exclude medical causes that may trigger behavior abnormalities in dogs. Compulsive disorders are a diagnosis of exclusion after medical causes have been ruled out. 
  • Evaluate why your dog may be chasing shadows once medical causes have been ruled out. Is it out of play? Is he stressed, anxious or frustrated? Does your dog receive enough exercise and mental stimulation? Can he be overwhelmed by excessive noises and exposure to over stimulating situations? Only by carefully evaluating the root cause, you can address it correctly. Enlist the help of a behavior professional if you are not sure why your dog may be prone to chasing shadows. 
  • If boredom is an issue, provide your dog with more exercise, training, mental stimulation, opportunities for socialization and over all environmental enrichment. 
  • Provide outlets for natural, instinctive behaviors with fun brain games, sniffing adventures, digging opportunities and food puzzles so that your dog has an opportunity to put his mind to work and engage in natural behaviors. 
  • If your dog is stressed or anxious, determine why that may be. Then, take steps to minimize exposure to those stimuli or situations and work on a desensitization and counterconditioning program with the help of a professional. 
  • Consider a consistent routine. Stressed and anxious who have a hard time coping with changes, may benefit from daily routines which provide a reassuring effect.  
  • Redirect the behavior. As soon as you notice your dog is about to chase shadows, redirect the behavior to another activity and make engaging in that activity very reinforcing, so that, over time, your dog will pick that activity more and more. For example, as soon as you notice a shadow and you see your dog noticing it as well, ask your dog to perform a replacement behavior you have practiced extensively in absence of the shadow and reinforce that generously with some high-value treats. You can ask your dog to target your hand, catch a treat you have tossed the opposite side away from the shadow or do some steps of attention heeling if the shadow chasing occurs on walks. 
  • Prevent inadvertently reinforcing the shadow-chasing behavior. Do not provide ANY form of attention when the behavior occurs. Ignore and even walk away when your dog starts the behavior. Provide ample of attention though when your dog engages in other behaviors. However, aim to prevent the behavior as much as possible, which brings to the next tip.
  • Prevent as much as possible rehearsal of the shadow-chasing behavior if you believe it is becoming problematic. Compulsive disorders tend to become more and more ingrained the more they are practiced, therefore, try your best in preventing the behavior from occurring in the first place. For examples, avoid walking your dog in areas or at times when there are lots of shadows. 
  • Provide challenges and keep that brain working with the use of clicker training. 
  • Encourage structured games such as hide-and-seek, play fetch by asking your dog to sit before tossing the ball and/or tug where your dog is asked to drop and take on cue. 
  • Avoid at all costs any punishment-based training and aversion-based techniques as these can exacerbate the behavior. Actually, these methods should be avoided in any dog, not only dogs exhibiting shadow chasing! 
  • For severe cases, consider working with dog behavior professional. The use of  anti-compulsive drugs may be necessary along with behavior modification. 
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