On a recent visit to train Bella, a 4-month-old border collie puppy whose owner was looking for some general manners training, I discovered that the puppy would often disappear into the summer house and amuse herself looking at, and pouncing on, lights reflected from the door onto the floor and walls, moving as the door blew in the wind. The puppy was the first dog that her owners had ever owned, so they weren’t aware that, left unchecked, a border collie chasing shadows can develop into a full-blown obsession. When collies become obsessed by “chasing” or watching shadows, reflections or lights, it can take up most of the time when they are supposed to be relaxing, creating a tired, stressed and over-vigilant dog, a situation not good for the dog or her family.
Why do border collies chase moving shadows, lights etc?
Border collies have been bred by farmers for hundreds of years to herd sheep. The qualities that make a dog great at herding sheep include keen eyesight, with eyes very drawn to movement. Collies need to be able to pick out livestock moving on hillsides a very long way off, and this makes them extremely sensitive to anything that moves quickly or suddenly. Couple this with a dog that has a lot of energy and is able to concentrate for long periods of time and you have a perfect recipe for the formation of compulsive behaviours.
Shadows from cars driving along the road at night, reflection from watches or doors opening and closing, or lights moving around the room, can all trigger this desire to watch and concentrate. This can cause the dog to exist in a state of hyperarousal for long periods of time. The longer the dog is allowed to carry on the behaviour throughout its life, the harder it will be for the owner to distract the dog and encourage her to focus on other things.
How can I prevent my border collie chasing shadows?
By far the easiest way to stop this behaviour is to stop it the instant you notice your dog starting to obsessively watch anything visual. I was able to advise Bella’s owners to keep the summer house door shut and keep her away from anywhere with moving reflections, shadows or lights. Either shut the dog out of the room where the behaviour occurs or block off the source of the visual stimulus. If this isn’t possible, then distract the dog from the lights, shadows or reflections by giving her a kong, lickimat or snuffle mat.
How can I stop my collie from chasing lights, shadows or reflections?
If your dog has already started becoming obsessed with moving visual stimuli, again, try shutting the dog out of the room in which the behaviour occurs or block the light/shadows/reflections from appearing. Keeping the dog’s mind from the triggers will work short-term but as soon as you stop interacting with the dog, the behaviour will begin. It’s much easier to block it by management of the environment.
If you are able to, distract the dog by giving her a kong, lickimat or snuffle mat, or by playing with toys, teaching her tricks or generally just keeping her busy. Carrying out crate training and using long-lasting chews can help keep your dog from practising the behaviour.
Ensure that she has plenty of exercise throughout the day as well as mental stimulation in the form of training. A tired, sleepy dog will be less likely to be so easily aroused. There is also a range of training tools and behaviours that we can show you to help you stop your dog from carrying out the behaviour or to change the likelihood of it continuing. You may find my blog post about stopping play biting useful. This article (towards the end of the article) outlines how to keep a puppy entertained in the evenings when they are most likely to be extremely aroused, and carrying out the same rotation of activities could help to distract a dog from shadow or light chasing.
Most importantly, remember that the more a dog has the opportunity to practise a behaviour, the more likely they are to continue. And there is a high likelihood that it will form into a compulsive habit that is very difficult to cure.
Prevention is much better than cure!
If you would like help or advice about a border collie – or any breed – that is chasing shadows, lights and reflections, please get in touch. I’ll be very happy to help.