Border collie shadow obsession (also known as shadow chasing, light chasing, or fixating on reflections), is a fairly common border collie behaviour, in which collies start to fixate on moving shapes on floors and walls. Affected collies may just have brief periods of shadow watching at certain times of day, while others watch shadows for long periods of time, sometimes for most of the time that they are awake. Some dogs will just watch the floor, transfixed, but others will bark and whine, and attempt to pounce on the shadow, or scratch at the floor or walls. Often, the behaviour starts when the dogs are still young puppies, but it can also develop later on, with owners unable to attribute any apparent cause. Often collies become so obsessed that they no longer want to interact with their owners, which is usually when people come to me for help. But what causes a border collie shadow obsession?
Owners are often wary about asking for help or advice because it is commonly believed that only bored collies, who are not given enough exercise or training, will shadow chase. However, this is rarely the case. In this blog post, we look at some of the reasons why your border collie may be chasing shadows.
The fact that some breeds are more prone to repetitive behaviours than others is a strong indication that genetics plays a factor, and a number of studies have looked at various anatomical differences between dogs that exhibit repetitive behaviours and those that don’t. For example, Ogata et al (2013) found that, as with humans with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dogs that are prone to repetitive behaviour have slightly different brain structures, Wu et al (2013) found that levels of glutamate differed in dogs and humans with obsessive disorders which were likely to be inherited, and Dodman (2009) found chromosome differences. Whilst these genetic differences don’t automatically mean that dogs will perform repetitive behaviours, they have more of a tendency to do so under the right conditions.
Attention seeking is one of the main causes of border collie shadow obsession. A shadow or light reflection catches their eye and they start to watch out for it again. The owners notice this and sometimes think it’s amusing or cute. Sometimes people will see how their dogs react to laser pens or they may notice that the dog is watching the reflection from their watch or from cutlery on the table. They watch the dog, they may laugh, tell them they’re a daft dog, or try and distract them with a toy or treats. Either way, the dog enjoys the attention, and learns that shadow or light chasing is a pretty good way to get the attention of their owner. If they’re really lucky, the owner may even give them a toy or a treat.
Over time, the more they carry out the behaviour, the more they start to actually enjoy it. The collie chase drive kicks in and they enjoy watching for the movement. If they’re unable to “catch” the shadow, they start to get frustrated. When a dog is frustrated because they are unable to achieve something that they want to achieve (catch the shadow), they start to try harder, for longer, and the behaviour becomes more intense. They may also chase for longer, or start to try new strategies such as pouncing on the shadows or vocalising. This is typically how the behaviour progresses and starts to get worse and worse over time. By the time we get to this stage, merely asking the owners to ignore the behaviour will no longer be successful in stopping it from occurring.
Pain or discomfort
The timing of the onset of border collie shadow obsession behaviour can often occur at the same time as an injury or illness that is causing them pain or discomfort. For instance, a collie that I’m currently helping was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at about the same time that she started shadow chasing. Although we are not able to know for definite, it’s thought that when dogs struggle with discomfort or pain of some sort, resting or staying still becomes difficult because there is nothing to take the dog’s focus away from the pain that they are feeling. They learn that if they are constantly on the move, they feel better.
Once they start the chasing, as explained above, the dog starts to enjoy it, but also becomes frustrated and the behaviour gradually becomes worse over time.
Over time, because collies naturally want to chase and control movement, they may start to quite enjoy the behaviour, but at the same time, because they’re not able to “catch” the shadows, they can quickly become quite frustrated.
Often the shadow chasing continues even after the pain or discomfort has subsided.
This video is of Shep, a rescue collie who had always been prone to watching lights and fixating on movement. He first started watching cutlery reflections on the ceiling when the table was being laid. His owners started getting him to lie down under the table, so the behavour was never able to progress at that stage. One Christmas he started to react by barking and lunging at Christmas lights while on walks in the dark, but in January when the lights were taken down, he was fine. Then one October he suffered a painful paw injury. At about the same time, the clocks changed and his owners started walking him at night in the dark. He started to obsess over the shadows caused by street lights and very quickly, potentially due to the pain in his paw, he generalised the shadow chasing into every small shadow in the home and every light reflection. It quickly took over his life and he was unable to interact with his owners. Even after the vet could find no pain, and he was given the all-clear, the shadow chasing had already become a habit that felt good to Shep, so it carried on. Due to the dedication and hard work of his owners, building up alternative behaviours to direct Shep to when he chases, working hard to train alternative behaviours, and limiting the opportunities for him to chase, as well as medical support, his shadow chasing is now much more manageable and he is able to greet his owners in the mornings, pay attention to them while training and play ball in the garden again. He still struggles a little when it’s very sunny, but he is much improved and is still getting better.
When dogs are feeling anxious, one of the strategies that they may use to make themselves feel better can be to self-soothe. Chasing is fun and feels good to a dog, and much the same as dogs that are in pain, shadow chasing can help the dog to feel better, giving them something else to do than just focus on whatever may be worrying them.
The shadow chasing then becomes a displacement behaviour, a behaviour that the dog carries out when it’s not sure what else to do.
For example, I recently visited a family with a shadow chasing collie who was able to relax and enjoyed spending time with the female owner all day. In the evening, when the children and the male owner came home, the peaceful house became chaotic and noisy, and the dog became overwhelmed by the noise. In these situations, she was already inclined to chase shadows, but the male owner would become annoyed by the dog shadow chasing, and attempt to tell her off and get her to stop. This caused the dog even more anxiety and so she got into a vicious circle, in which as soon as the male owner got home, her anxiety peaked and she started shadow chasing. He became frustrated and annoyed, and the whole cycle continued.
This video shows a collie I recently saw whose shadow chasing behavour became much worse when he was anxious or stressed. He would go long periods of not practising the behaviour, but periods of stress, such as being taken on holiday to a new place, or after a particularly nasty incident with another dog and owner in a park, the shadow chasing would worsen for a few days.
Shadow chasing and other repetitive behaviours can often occur when dogs become over-aroused, due to strong emotional reactions, such as fear, excitement, anxiety, lust, frustration etc. They are so overwhelmed that they can’t cope and their brain directs them to “displacement” behaviours, behaviours that often feature breed-specific actions. So, for instance, spaniels will suddenly begin madly sniffing the floor, border collies may chase shadows, other breeds may bark uncontrollably and some dogs may even become aggressive as displacement behaviours. By performing the displacement behaviour, the dog doesn’t have to focus on anything else and there is evidence that the behaviour can actually make them feel better. The behaviour becomes the dog’s coping strategy.
There are various ways in which dogs can feel conflicted. They may feel approach–avoid conflict, often with an owner from whom they want attention, but they may also be anxious about approaching for various reasons. They may want to go into the garden but be afraid of the neighbour’s dog. They may want to be with the family in the living room but be afraid of noises on the TV or they may want to go for a walk with the owners but also be afraid to go outside, for example during firework season.
Conflict isn’t a nice feeling. If you think about times when you had to make a difficult decision, it’s not a nice feeling, and dogs don’t enjoy feeling conflicted. In the same way as they deal with anxiety, they may keep themselves busy shadow chasing, meaning that they don’t have to worry about the conflict any more – there is no conflict in chasing shadows.
A dog that we recently saw was relaxed and able to cope all day while at home with the female owner, but when the kids came home from school and the male owner arrived home from work, the dog immediately started shadow chasing. This would annoy the male owner, so the dog would be conflicted. She wanted to spend time with him, but could sense that he was annoyed. This, along with the increased noise and excitement with the children arriving home, and the high arousal state of the dog, caused the shadow chasing to become much worse in the evenings whereas during the day the dog was much less aroused and could relax.
Boredom, under-stimulation or lack of an appropriate outlet for practising chase behaviours
This is rarely the only reason why border collie shadow obsession becomes a problem, but it can contribute to the problem. Border collies can’t help being transfixed by movement. It’s this breeding that motivates them to look for sheep across hills and valleys, and then gives them the desire to go out and control the movement, bringing the sheep back to the handler.
When they don’t have enough exercise or play outlets, giving them the opportunity to go for walks and see movement every day in the outside world, or play with and chase toys, they are more drawn to any movement that they are able to find in the house. Within a short while, the collie learns that she enjoys her new pastime, starts to get a little frustrated, and the whole behaviour progresses in the same way as described above.
In these sorts of cases, suddenly providing the stimulation that the collie has been craving does not magically stop the behaviour because it has already become a well-practised obsession that is highly internally reinforcing. You will need the help of a behaviourist who understands border collies to ensure that you are following the right practices to help reduce or eliminate the behaviour.
This video shows Daphne, who was shadow chasing 90% of the time, which was impacting her quality of life. She was a very high-drive puppy who liked to be on the go, and even though her owners gave her really long walks, trained her and spent a lot of time with her, her drive to watch and fixate on the movement just took over. She did have to be left on her own during the day, but she didn’t practise the behaviour when left alone, possibly because there were no moving shadows then. Her owners worked really hard to pre-empt the chasing and to interrupt it when it started, and eventually, with the help of medication, it much improved. She now only chases 5-10% of the time. Sometimes, with very movement-sensitive collies, we never completely stop shadow-chasing collies but the owners learn to manage it.
If you need help with your border collie’s shadow obsession or any other compulsive behaviour, please get in touch. Any repetitive behaviours are difficult to resolve and we will need to arrange a behaviour consultation to reduce or eliminate the problem, but we are always able to reduce the behaviour by up to 80% or more. It will improve your dog’s quality of life and reduce the stress and anxiety you feel when you’re unable to stop your dog from practising the behaviour.
Dodman, N.H., Karlsson, E.K., Moon-Fanelli, A., Galdzicka, M., Perloski, M., Shuster, L., Lindblad-Toh, K. and Ginns, E.I. (2010) A canine chromosome 7 locus confers compulsive disorder susceptibility. Molecular Psychiatry, 15(1), 8-10.
Ogata, N., Gillis, T.E., Liu, X., Cunningham, S.M., Lowen, S.B., Adams, B.L., Sutherland-Smith, J., Mintzopoulos, D., Janes, A.C., Dodman, N.H. and Kaufman, M.J. (2013) Brain structural abnormalities in Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 45, 1-6.
Wu, K., Hanna, G.L., Rosenberg, D.R. and Arnold, P.D. (2012) The role of glutamate signaling in the pathogenesis and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 100(4), 726-735.