TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We rescued our Lab, Harry, two years ago. Our vet thinks he’s about 4 years old. The problem is he compulsively chases shadows. We noticed the problem shortly after adopting him, but it seems to be getting worse. It’s especially bad when other dogs are around. Should we be concerned and if so what can we do to stop him?
I think you are right to be concerned. Dogs are subject to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) just like humans. OCD is a medical condition where a dog engages in normal canine activities in an abnormally repetitive, frantic and self-destructive manner. There are many OCD type behaviors in dogs including, but not limited to, self-mutilation, compulsive shadow chasing and laser-pointer chasing. Fortunately, this condition can usually be controlled through behavior modification and possibly medication. You should consult with your veterinarian about the best course of treatment.
From a behavior perspective, I would start by trying to determine if there are specific triggers that lead to the behavior and eliminate them. Being around some dogs may make him nervous, but with others he is fine. If you can determine what dogs cause the anxiety, avoid them. It will help to keep his environment calm and predictable. Next, redirect Harry when he begins to chase shadows. Carry a favorite squeaky toy or a ball in your pocket and engage him in a game. You could also ask him to do something he knows well like “sit” or “lay down.” You will need to consistently interrupt the shadow chasing so he can learn new behavior patterns. In addition, adequate daily exercise is very important to relieve stress and minimize anxiety.
The one thing you don’t want to do is punish a compulsive behavior. Punishment is not an effective form of treatment and can actually increase a dog’s level of arousal and anxiety, which in turn can make the symptoms worse. Punishment can also interfere with a dog’s ability to learn new, non-ritualistic behaviors successfully.
The behaviors associated with OCD almost always worsen without treatment, so the sooner you get started the better.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at email@example.com.