Owners often contact me to ask how they can teach their shadow chasing border collie not to chase shadows, a habit that, once started, is very difficult to break. If the habit is not managed properly it can quickly become an obsession and starts to take over a dog’s life. They can be so obsessed that they spend every waking moment watching for shadows and find it very difficult to switch off and relax.
This video shows one of our shadow chasing border collie clients before we started behavioural training to reduce the amount of time he was fixating on shadows:
Why do dogs chase shadows?
There are many different reasons why border collies, and other breeds, may start to chase shadows, and in order to reduce the behaviour, it helps to find out why it started in the first place.
Shadow chasing in border collies can be caused by:
- Conflict – when the animal has two strong but conflicting motivations, such as a desire to play roughly with the owners, but they know that they may be told off for doing so, or confusion about what is required by the owners due to miscommunication.
- Pain or discomfort – even though your collie appears to be perfectly fit and well, there could be some niggling ache or pain that is dulled by repetitive movements.
- A form of seizure or epilepsy
- Play – the dog is genuinely seeing the shadow as a moving object to chase and try and catch. However, the item cannot be caught, which can often lead to intense frustration and increased excitement and arousal, making the behaviour more intense.
- A learned response – used in order to get owner’s attention. This is often the case when puppies are introduced to laser pens, or when owners notice their puppy watching watch face reflections or shadows on the wall and laugh and encourage the dog, making it a fun game.
- A compulsive disorder – can occur when the shadow chasing starts to get more intense and take over every waking moment of the dog’s day. This becomes a welfare issue and needs resolving to improve the dog’s quality of life.
In order to determine which of these might be causing the behaviour, and to minimise or eliminate the chasing, you will need the help of a behaviourist, preferably one who specialises in border collies. Without knowing what could be causing a shadow chasing border collie to chase shadows, it’s very difficult to treat the problem successfully. However, the following guidelines will help reduce most cases, and ideally should be followed as soon as you notice that your collie has started to take an unhealthy interest in moving lights, reflections or shadows:
Never encourage any sort of play or chasing of laser pens, lights, reflections or shadows of any kind. If you notice the dog starting to pay attention to any of these, don’t make a fuss, just simply remove the dog from the situation and set up the environment to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Prevent the chasing/watching
Prevent the behaviour as much as possible. So if your dog only chases shadows in the kitchen while you are cooking, keep him out of the kitchen while you are cooking. If he only notices shadows on walls due to street lights when you are walking him at night, walk him in the daylight only. If he is reacting to reflections from cutlery on the table, keep him under the table where he can’t see the reflections. The more you can do to prevent the behaviour from intensifying the better, the easier it will be to resolve.
Interrupt the behaviour
Remember that shadow chasing can be very easily reinforced by your attention, so ensure that if your dog has already started chasing shadows, don’t distract him to stop him. For instance, don’t call him to you or pick up a toy for him to play with, as these are all things that the dog will find reinforcing. Instead, INTERRUPT the behaviour. This is different to distraction; instead of giving him attention in any way, use a sound or do something that he will find interesting but that won’t actually involve looking at, talking to or otherwise interacting with your dog.
For instance, you could:
- ring the doorbell
- pick up one of his toys and throw and catch it by yourself
- give a different pet a lot of loud, obvious attention that is likely to get the attention of your dog, who will be intrigued by what is happening.
Once you have his attention, ask for a different behaviour, eg. sit, lie down or do a trick that he enjoys doing. THEN you can give him some praise and attention. By interrupting the shadow chasing in this way, getting his attention, then asking for a different behaviour that you can then reward, you are stopping it without reinforcing him. Remember that, to a dog that is bored, even being told off is better than no attention.
Be consistent and predictable
This may sound very insignificant, but if your dog is conflicted, it may be because different members of the family are treating him differently, or it may be because one time he does something he is fussed and praised, but another time he is told off. Ensure that you are interacting with him consistently. For example, when someone sometimes lets a dog on the settee at certain times but tells him off at other times, or when owners are happy for their dog to jump up when his paws are dry but then get angry when he jumps up when his paws are muddy. Border collies can be so sensitive that sometimes just fussing them can cause conflict if it’s a little too rough for them, or they don’t feel comfortable being fussed. It can often take the experience of a behaviourist to read the dog’s very subtle body language that gives us the necessary insight into how the dog feels about different situations and contexts.
Carrying out some general training activities with shadow chasing dogs can help owners be more predictable and consistent and can improve dog-owner communication significantly. Clicker training your dog, starting from the basics, and building up to tricks is great for this!
Get in touch with a behaviourist
Whilst working through the steps above, contact a behaviourist for help. It may be that your dog needs certain psychoactive medications that can help to reduce the behaviour alongside the behaviour modification plan that your behaviourist will give to work upon. Shadow chasing is a serious condition that can have a very negative impact on the welfare of dogs, so it’s important to get help as soon as you see your dog starting to practise any form of watching, pouncing on, chasing or in any other way reacting to lights, shadows, reflections or anything similar. The longer the shadow chasing dog has been obsessed with shadows, the harder it is to stop.
For specialist border collie shadow chasing help and advice, please get in touch.