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Why Do Dogs Chase Shadows? 5 Top Reasons & When It's OCD - PawSafe

Why Do Dogs Chase Shadows? 5 Top Reasons & When It’s OCD

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

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Dogs never fall short of playful antics, so you’ve probably wondered, “why do dogs chase shadows?” after catching your pup doing it. Additionally, some canines may fixate on moving lights and reflections and this could become a problem dog behavior.

While isolated cases of shadow chasing are harmless and really adorable to watch, dogs can go overboard with it. Left to their own devices, running after shadows can quickly become frustrating when the dog realizes they’ll never catch them and we always need to steer dogs away from obsessive behavior.

Some solutions, like snuffle mats, puzzles, and physical exercise can resolve a shadow obsession. This article will answer all your questions about dogs chasing shadows and what you can do about it.

Young dogs are most likely to chase shadows, and they should grow out of this behavior just like they should grow out of chasing their own tail. But if dogs do this a lot, it can indicate a problem. While this behavior seems odd and even meaningless to us, it does help dogs cope. Confined dogs and those with inadequate mental and physical stimulation exhibit the behavior most.

Dogs are hard-wired to pursue moving objects due to their prey drive, particularly in hunting dogs like German Short-haired Pointers or herding dog breeds like Collies. Shifting Shadows, moving lights, and some reflections are, therefore, able to trigger a dog’s prey drive. However, unlike when they pursue a moving object like a ball, they never get the satisfaction of the catch.

Working line canines like herding dogs, such as the Border Collie, are literally built to work hard. They can easily degenerate into obsessive behaviors like chasing and biting if their busy minds aren’t given something to do.

It’s easy to distinguish between ordinary and concerning shadow chasing because one is obsessive and compulsive. Young dogs will typically only chase shadows for a few seconds or minutes before giving up. But if a dog doesn’t stop, it’s time to look at the reasons.

These six common reasons dogs chase shadows will let you know the help your dog needs. 

Shadows activate a dog’s natural impulses to chase

The first thing to note is that when shadows move, they can trigger a dog’s prey drive. Plenty of dog breeds suffer from poor eyesight. And, in many ways, dogs don’t have great eyesight. However, they are better at noticing movement than we are.

Noticing movement is hardwired into a dog’s natural urge to chase after something that is moving, called their prey drive. Not all dogs have a strong prey drive. For instance, Mastiffs rarely notice if you toss a ball over them. But dogs that were either used for hunting or herding, have evolved a very strong urge to chase, and moving shadows can set off this urge.

A young dog may chase shadows a little from time to time, when they are excited. However, when high-energy dogs don’t have enough ways to expend their energy, they may start chasing shadows more and more to cope. This leads to the next reason dogs chase shadows.

Anxiety

Dogs can’t be man’s best friend without sharing a few attributes like anxiety. Some canines have general anxiety triggered by fireworks, thunder, and the like, while many have separation anxiety. Others have social anxiety and can hide their treats far from people and other pets.

Anxious dogs often use unwanted behaviors to deal with their stress. This can include anything excessive, like licking their paws for ages or chasing shadows for hours. Other signs you’ll notice include the following:

  • Barking;
  • Panting;
  • Shivering;
  • Pacing;
  • Pinned ears; and
  • Tucked tail.

Many pawrents don’t know their pooches are battling anxiety since a study revealed that about 70% of all dogs suffer from the condition.

Some home remedies like Ashwagandha can help dogs with mild anxiety, but serious cases need help from qualified behaviorists and trainers.

Boredom

Bored dogs indulge in all sorts of behaviors, from digging on your couch to chasing their shadow. Indoor dogs that don’t receive mental and physical stimulation are particularly prone to this behavior. Bored dogs often have nothing better to do than to chase anything that moves.

Obsessive Canine Disorder

 Dogs can get an incredibly unhealthy fixation on a movement or object in an obsessive, repetitive manner. Excessive shadow chasing is a compelling form of Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD), especially when not tackled at the onset. 

CCD is strikingly similar to OCD in humans and interferes with your canine’s quality of life. Other forms of CCD include hours of tail chasing, spinning, staring, and licking, which can result in self-mutilation. It’s best to consult your vet and a behaviorist if you suspect your dog suffers from this condition. The video below shows a dog that with OCD and outlines how to address this problem

Expelling Excessive Energy

Sometimes your dog is just so excited at being outside that they pick up some strange behaviors like chasing tails and shadows. This can just be sign of excitement and exuberance. Another sign of an over-excited dog is a dog shaking their body while dry.

Your dog doesn’t have to be exercise-starved to get excited due to pent-up energy. However, over-excitement is often a sign of physical and mental understimulation, so it’s probably time to crank up the workouts.

They’re Simply Curious

Puppies are curious, and anything unusual will warrant their attention. Running after shadow is common in puppies who are still learning about the world, and it should subside after one or two chases. 

Sometimes, dogs running after shadows is just them doing something fun, much like chewing sticks and playing fetch. Trying to catch shadows can be their way of catching their owner’s attention, especially if you encourage the behavior by focusing on them.

Is it Okay for My Dog to Chase Shadows?

A little bit of shadow chasing in an energetic dog is normal. But when it becomes excessive it can indicate an underlying behavioral condition like anxiety or Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD). While few instances of shadow chasing are normal canine quirks, most warrant caution.

Suppose you take your dog to the dog park, and they ignore the other dogs, sights, and smells in order to spend all their time chasing shadows. In this case, the behavior has definitely become obsessive and it is interfering with your dog’s ability to have a complete experience of dog life.

Puppy Chasing Shadows: Do They Outgrow it?

Just like chasing their tails, most puppies will outgrow chasing shadows by the time they are 12 to 18 months old.

Puppies are small packages of energy and curiosity, so chasing shadows is almost expected at this age. In this case, the behavior is nothing to worry about. Even so, it’s better to ignore shadow chasing in puppies than to actively reward them for it or make a fuss. Attention for chasing shadows can encourage the behavior, in some cases, may make the dog become obsessive over it.

The behavior can be discouraged, for example, by diverting their attention with a better game, like playing fetch or tug. Providing your puppy with plenty of positive activities like,

  • Positive obedience training; 
  • Socialization, daily playtime;
  • Puzzle games, chew toys; and
  • Scheduled daily exercise. 

Shadow Chasing in Deaf Dogs

Deaf dogs lack the auditory stimulation of normal dogs and may seek ways to stimulate themselves, including an attraction to shadows. Deaf dogs may appear naughtier than others when they chew things, bark, or chase virtually anything that moves.

In actuality, any unusual behaviors in deaf dogs are an effort to excite themselves using their other senses. There is a myth that deaf dogs are more aggressive, but the reality is they are more likely to be startled, which can lead to a nip. 

How to Stop Dogs from Chasing Shadows — Solutions

The best way to stop a dog from chasing shadows is to address the root of the behavior. You can stop your dogs from running after their shadow on the spot by distracting them, but that’s only temporary. The video below directly addresses how to deal with shadow chasing in dogs.

  1. Take Your Dog for Regular Walks Or Runs

    Walks are one of the best ways to give your dog physical exercise. It’s appropriate for dogs of all sizes, brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, and pups with sensitive joints. A tired dog is far from bored and has less energy to chase shadows or chew your house to bits.

  2. Mental Exercise

    Dogs are impressively intelligent, so their minds need to be kept busy. Interactive toys tap into your dog’s love for foraging for their food and give your dog much-needed mental exercise. These include KONGS, snuffle mats, and puzzles.

  3. Minimize Anxiety Triggers

    Responsible dog owners know their dog’s eccentricities, including what causes their anxiety. For example, You can keep your dog in a cozy place where they feel safe when there are fireworks or thunder. You can try desensitization to triggers, such as leaving for longer periods each day or going for a longer car ride each time.

    Before giving anti-anxiety medications, you can attempt appeasing pheromones and home remedies like Valerian root or L-Theanine. You also need to work closely with an experienced dog trainer who knows how reduce anxiety rather than just suppress it.

  4. Teach Them Commands Like “Sit” or “Stay”

    Sometimes your dog needs a command to snap out of their shadow frenzy. Giving them a treat after calming down and following the command incentivizes your dog to stop chasing shadows for the greater good; treats.

  5. Seek Professional Help

    When chasing shadows has become obsessive (or compulsive) and nothing seems to redirect your dog’s attention elsewhere, then it is time for a professional to step in. A good behaviorist can help you with steps for behavior modification. In extreme situations, a vet may also prescribe medication for dogs with a compulsive disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why do Dogs Chase Their Tails?

Occasional tail chasing is normal canine playfulness, but it indicates boredom, itchiness due to parasites, or injuries when excessive. It’s essential to monitor your dog’s tail-chasing because too much of it without any other signs of pain or boredom can indicate Canine Compulsive Disorder.

Why is my Border Collie Chasing shadows?

Border Collies are very energetic dogs and will shadow chase to burn out some bottled energy. Their desire to chase (prey drive) is activated by any movement and this can become an unhealthy obsession. High-energy working dogs need their exercise requirements met to avoid aggression, boredom, and destructive chewing. Anxious dogs can also chase their shadows as a distraction from their feelings.

Why do Dogs like Moving Lights?

Moving lights, much like shadows, attract a dog because seeing movement triggers a dog’s urge to chase. Chasing moving lights and reflections shows a dog is bored or anxious, especially if they’re enclosed for long. The light movement triggers a dogs chasing instinct, which is why they love chasing lasers so much.

Final Thoughts 

Dogs chasing shadows is mostly an indicator of boredom and anxiety in dogs. High-energy breeds like German Shepherds and Cattle Dogs are at most risk of engaging in this odd behavior as they try to release some energy.

Taking your dogs for walks and giving them mental stimulation is the best way to prevent dogs from chasing their shadow. Shadow and tail chasing, staring, and moving in circles are strong indicators of Canine Compulsives Disorder, and they should never be taken lightly.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

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Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.