When Lola came to live with us, at about 4 months of age, I vividly remember first noticing the onset of one of her obsessive behaviours, shadow chasing. When she was a puppy and still learning right from wrong we kept her outside when we couldn’t watch her 100% of the time. After we had eaten our dinner though we would head outside to play a game, have a wrestle or just a cuddle. It was during one of these innocent interactions when my husband and I were sitting on the ground, so we could be at her level, that I recall Lola noticing, then pawing at and finally chasing any moving shadow. Who would have thought that these seemingly normal puppy behaviours of discovering new things, investigating these new things and interacting with these new things would turn into a full blown obsession in the months and years to followed.
Of course there was also an event that turned her interest in shadows into the full-blown obsession that we struggled for a long time to resolve. We held our engagement party at a family members house, at this time Lola was approximately 5 months old. They have a rather large backyard that includes a tennis court with flood lights. Trying to be responsible we placed Lola in a fenced area of the backyard so that she couldn’t run bog laps through the party all night but people were still able to talk to her. What we didn’t anticipate though was that people would enter this area to see the cute puppy. Basically we learned the lesson that you can keep the puppy away from the party but you can’t keep the party away from the puppy. As it was night time when people went out to see and play with Lola they put the lights on, these massive flood lights created lots of large moving shadows to arouse the interest of an energetic pup. Even though we meant well we didn’t realise that we were actually creating a very intense scenario for our fearful pup.
From this point onwards we saw a dramatic increase in Lola’s shadow chasing. In the early days we tried to distract her from chasing them. When that approach stopped being effective we limited her access to areas and environments that would set her off, this soon became rather impractical given the size of our house and obviously there were times that we wanted to go outside. I regret to say that as her intensity for chasing shadows increased so too did our efforts to stop her from doing so and we turned to ill advised methods from local and famous dog trainers/behaviourists. We are sure that some of this advice resulted in her obsessive behaviour being reinforced and her already present anxiety becoming heightened.
There are many things that we have taken away from working through this issue with Lola which would be relevant to many behavioural issues. Some of them are -
1. Once you notice your dog has a problem, no matter how innocent it may seem at first, don’t wait too long to get professional help if you aren’t equipped to deal with it. Also make sure that you find a professional that you are comfortable with, who uses methods you feel comfortable with.
2. Don’t just deal with the most obvious problem as underlying issues also need to be addressed. In Lola’s case her underlying anxiety was definitely a contributing factor to this obsessive behaviour and needed to be alleviated before we could fully address the shadow chasing behaviour.
3. Be careful that the training you are undertaking to deal with the issue is not aggravating it and /or other issues your dog may have. We could have saved Lola and ourselves a lot of grief if we had thought about the affect some of the training techniques we were advised to take had on her.
4. Finally, all dogs are different, they have different personalities and behavioural traits! What may help and solve an issue with one dog won’t necessarily do the same for another dog.