Problem: Shadow and light chasing

Dear Shannon

I have a Border Collie (6 years old) who is obsessed with chasing light reflections.

Unfortunately this behaviour is often encouraged by visitors and relatives (against my clear wishes) as they find it amusing to see him running after reflections made by a watch, torch (in the dark) or any shiny object.

I have trained him in obedience and he has qualified in Novice at a recent KUSA show. However, he is constantly looking for reflections if there is a shady patch in the ring before we start any exercise. He is not really toy driven, so it is very difficult to take his mind off looking for "lights" with another distraction. I use food as a reward in training, but even this sometimes is not enough to get him focussed on me.

Someone said he has "compulsive obsessive behaviour" (or something like that!). What can I do to discourage this behaviour?

Light bulb


Hi Light Bulb

This is indeed a very frustrating behaviour problem due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to control the stimulus that sets the problem off (light and shadows). What makes this worse is when people find it "amusing" and then provide more opportunities for the dog to engage in this behaviour. At a show this past weekend I was very distressed to see a person "showing off" their dog's light chasing abilities!

Some may question why this behaviour is really a problem. The truth of the matter is that in some cases the behaviour can become so pervasive that it interferes with normal function. Some dogs have been known to stop drinking or eating because of their obsession with chasing lights etc. Apart from that it can interfere terribly with the dog's and owner's lives and cause untold stress. Some people have unknowingly caused this problem by encouraging the habit in puppies or by training deaf dogs with laser lights.

Little is known about OCD (obsessive compulsive disorders) in humans, so of course even less is known about the condition in dogs. In dogs the condition is commonly referred to as CCD (canine compulsive disorder). There are many CCD's, but the most common are tail-chasing, spinning, light and shadow chasing, snapping at imaginary flies and self-mutilation.
Previously, OCD in animals was considered an animal's response to frustration of his basic behavioural needs when placed in a sub-optimal environment. In other words OCD's were put down to boredom. However a study conducted by Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli in 1994, showed a definitive genetic link (the study was conducted on Bull Terriers with tail spinning CCD). Tail spinning was noted in related dogs despite different environments, so it cannot be stated unequivocally that CCD's are entirely due to inadequate environments.

Environment does however play a role. OCD's can and do develop in zoo animals (which are very unlikely to have genetic predispositions to OCD's). But this can be entirely blamed on environment, which is clearly far below optimal levels. However, a normal domestic environment provides enough stimulation for most dogs - you state that you work your dog in obedience as well, so I would assume that his environmental needs are being met.
Border Collies are high-drive dogs and it could be believed that this high need for activity in a suboptimal environment could cause CCD's. But if this were the case then we would see the majority of high drive dogs in pet homes with this disorder, but we don't. So we have to look at another cause, which would tie in with the genetic element.

Many specialists in this area, including Dr. Dodman, believe that many CCD's are the result of small seizures that occur in the brain. This has been verified by electroencephalogram tests on dogs with these disorders. This would be why anticonvulsant medications seem to help in some cases. Some also believe that CCD's are associated with neuroanatomical changes, which do not allow the animal to respond normally to certain stimuli.

SSRI's (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can also assist, but it is vital that any medication is used in conjunction with a behaviour modification programme. The medication merely assists in the facilitation of the behaviour modification programme. In other words it gives the caregiver a chance to get a "foot in the door" so to speak.

The unwanted behaviour must be ignored and obviously not presented to the dog. Distraction techniques can work well and should not always involve the same technique - otherwise we substitute one CCD for another. Distraction techniques could also open the dog's mind to the possibility of behaving in a different way. Some of the TTouch techniques could be very useful in this respect.

You need to have a behavioural veterinarian assess your dog and recommend a course of treatment. This can be a very stressful and tiring problem to work with, but you need to understand that it is probably outside of your dog's control at this stage so he will need a lot of patience and understanding.
Good luck.

" Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD - Canine Compulsive Behavior: An Overview and Phenotypic Description of Tail Chasing in Bull Terriers
" Obsessive-compulsive disorders and Sterotypies: Donna Brander