This is a story about my own dog, Cocker Spaniel Pickle, and the ball thrower.
I’ve hidden the ball thrower.
Pickle loves to chase the ball. He jumps to catch it and he would carry on till he dropped (though I can’t image Pickle ever dropping if the ball kept being thrown).
Why isn’t it a good thing? Dogs LOVE it.
Unfortunately they can become obsessed. Too much and they can even become adrenaline junkies. They are never happy unless a ball is being thrown for them.
A lovely walk can become nothing more than chasing a ball, fetching and dropping it to be thrown again. The richness of the countryside becomes lost to the dog. He should be using his wonderful nose to explore the environment and all the dogs, other animals and bugs that have passed his way before him.
Would a dog, freely out in the environment alone without humans, be doing anything quite so relentlessly repetitive?
Anything repeated over and over can be addictive and causes stress of a kind, even if the dog does LOVE it.
It’s almost like the dog is a clockwork toy (remember clockwork?) and with a key we are winding him up until he is over-wound.
My Cocker Spaniel, Pickle, would chase a ball all day given the chance. However, if there is no ball, he is happily ‘Pickling’. He does what instinctively comes to him which is running about, tail wagging, exploring with his nose. He may chase a pigeon or dig up a vole.
He’s a working dog, and needs to use his brain whilst exercising.
The day before yesterday someone took my dogs to the field with the ball thrower for Pickle. He threw the ball for him, over and over.
Over the past two days the fallout from that extended ball play on Pickle has been very evident. (I do myself play ball but it is for a few throws only then I stop. Adding some training and brain work goes a little way towards fulfilling his genetic needs).
Pickle never stops.
He brings the ball back, drops it where it makes it easiest for the person to pick up. He runs off in anticipation of where it might land before it leaves the ball thrower.
The day before yesterday after the lengthy ball play, Pickle charged back into the house ahead of the other dogs. I was sitting at my computer. He leapt into the water bowl, digging out the water all over the sitting room floor. Dripping, he charged all over the furniture and then jumped into and knocked over the larger water bucket the dogs drink from.
Any self control was simply impossible.
For a good hour he paced and he panted. Each small noise set him off barking.
Isn’t ball play meant to tire him out and make him calm? Isn’t a tired, physically worn out dog a good dog? Fat chance! It’s the opposite.
Pickle was on alert for sounds for the rest of the day. The next morning he was still high, getting vocal and excited for his breakfast, perfectly illustrating how stress chemicals remain in the body.
So, I have hidden the ball thrower.
Pickle has been out in the field with me several times, Pickling. No balls.
Afterwards he comes in, has a drink and settles.
Today the neighbours wheeled their wheelie bin down the passage. After just one token Woof Pickle settled again. No vocals before breakfast.
It’s taken three days to get him back to this.
If anyone reading this with a highly wired or stressy dog uses a ball thrower to chuck a ball repeatedly for their dog, just try something.
Try no ball throwing for a few days. Just allow freedom to explore and to sniff. Your dog may find ‘doing his own thing’ very hard to start with, but persist.
If the dog chooses to run, he can chase things he himself chooses to chase.
A less stressed dog will result in a dog being able to cope with all sorts of things life throws at him, whether it’s encountering other dogs on walks to being less destructive or waiting patiently for his dinner.
Laser lights, usually cat toys, are DANGEROUS to dogs! They should come with a written warning on the packaging.
I went to a gorgeous little Cavapoo yesterday, called out because the people couldn’t understand her odd behaviour.
They showed me this video. The six-month-old puppy runs about frantically looking for something, highly aroused and increasingly frustrated to the point, at the end, of barking.
This would go on for hours if she were left.
At first I couldn’t understand the behaviour. Then the lady mentioned that the puppy had stayed with her grandchildren. Little Sophie would play with the cat – and the children had her chasing a laser.
Of course! Everything fell into place.
I have been to quite a number of dogs over the years who have obsessively chased shadows and lights. One, a Border Collie, would sit all day looking at a wall, just in case a light or shadow might appear on it.
Many dogs’ obsessive behaviour has been triggered by chasing reflections or a laser in play. It seems such a harmless and easy way of giving the dog something to chase.
The fallout was entirely unpredicted with little Sophie. They thought she liked it which in a way she does – to the extent that it’s all-consuming.
One small thing can start her off, usually in the covered area outside. The lady had played light-chasing in there with her. Now the sun reflecting on something or even the light catching on her metal name tag and reflecting onto the floor could trigger it.
Sophie of course is unable ever to catch a light. She constantly looks for it. You can see from the video that she gets frustrated to the point, at the end, of barking at where she thinks ‘it’ could be hiding.
She does less light-chasing indoors, but before I left something happened that confirmed my diagnosis.
In the kitchen the lady showed me the laser. Before I could stop her she had turned it on briefly. That was enough for the little dog to go into exactly the same behaviour as shown in the video – in the kitchen.
Curing this will need systematic work as well as removing as much opportunity as possible.
Preventing further rehearsal.
It’s most important to prevent further rehearsal in every way possible. The more she does it, the more she will do it. As with a child and anything compulsive, telling her to stop won’t help at all but just create further pressure.
They will throw the laser thing away and keep Sophie out of the covered area as much as possible, maybe blocking it off.
She normally has free access to the garden through a flap which I advise is kept closed. I suggest they change the metal name tag to a plastic one.
What to do when the obsessive seeking-chasing starts?
Sophie should be taken outside on a harness and long lead. The lady then will stand and watch her. As soon as Sophie starts light-obsessing she will immediately call “Sophie Come”. She will throw some pieces of food on the floor in the other direction.
Sophie then comes away from the wall and has to look down to pick up the food. If she is so obsessed she doesn’t hear, she can be helped with the lead. The idea is to redirect her compulsion onto doing something else, something real that she can see – and eat. Once eaten, it’s gone.
We may also experiment with a squeaky toy instead of food, squeaking it to redirect Sophie’s attention and dropping it on the floor.
The family has played laser chasing with Sophie for several months now, so it could take a long time to change. Possibly there will always be the tendency to do it again if something starts her off. It’s impossible in real life to remove all light triggers.
For now they need to be ready with the instant distraction and redirection onto something she likes – that’s real and tangible.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Sophie and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’, finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog may not be appropriate, and in many cases the owner needs training personally. Being able to see a professional who can accurately diagnose a dog’s behaviour can be necessary. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)
It’s really strange how it all started. They have had the little Bichon Frise for just a few weeks – he came over from Ireland with an unknown past – and the young lady quite unwittingly bought him a laser light thinking that he would enjoy chasing it.
Just a few minutes triggered something in the adorable and affectionate Buddy that has been unstoppable since.
The slightest shadow or reflection starts him off, as even do flying birds. On a walk recently some swallows swooping about overhead had him leaping about and barking frantically.
The behaviour seems to be triggered by stress and excitement as well as any actual shadow or light. When I was there, someone coming back into the room was enough to start him off again. If there is no shadow to see, the young dog will look for it.
It follows a three-stage sequence which starts with Buddy prowling about, his eyes up at the walls. Next he becomes more agitated, to the extent that by now he is deaf to any calling or distractions. Finally he erupts into a wild fit of barking, charging about from room to room and now it’s hard to catch him.
They have tried everything they can think of including putting him in another room which seems to settle him.
This is particularly hard to deal with, mainly because with most behaviours that we want to eliminate we arrange the environment so the dog has less opportunity to rehearse them. In this case the shadows may not actually exist in order for him to start fixating.
It was evident early in our meeting, by listening to the lovely family and watching the little dog, that he spends much of his life far too aroused. They feel that he was probably neglected in the past and bless them they are doing all they can to compensate for this now. They feel guilty when they leave him alone so make a big issue of their comings and goings. He has more or less constant attention. He may have four walks a day, one possibly for as long as an hour and a half.
When he gets home from walks he can be in a hyper state which tells me that the walk hasn’t really done what it’s meant to do. Over-exercise and stimulation is possibly little better than too little.
They have had him for three months now and want to make his life as fun as possible, so, like many people, they stir their dog up intentionally in the belief that exciting him is the way to make him happy.
I suspect that everything is simply too much. Probably the contrast with his former life is also simply too much also.
Our approach is to tone down everything. Lower, softer voices, gentler petting, no deliberately exciting him before going out, short and calmer walks where he can do a lot of sniffing.
Play should be careful. At present it’s far too exciting. He grabs something and ‘loves to be chased about’. Toys and balls are thrown for him to run after which can simply be fuelling his fixation with moving things. We looked at calm games that will exercise his mind like hunting and foraging.
We did some gentle clicker training, the aim being to get him to touch a hand – a way of calling him away from shadows before he gets stuck in. Using a clicker, we also marked and rewarded him each time he chose to take a break from looking about, before he got too carried away. There may be other things he can be taught to do that are incompatible with chasing shadows – like settling somewhere or looking away at something else instead.
The environment needs to be made as helpful as possible. If doors are shut he can do less charging about when he’s in a frenzy. If he’s less stimulated by letters coming through the door and so on, there will be fewer triggers.
Finally they need to step in a lot sooner than they have when taking him out of the situation to calm down. The ‘quiet room’ is a room where he’s happy to be alone – a spare bedroom. It can be dark, with soft music especially produced for calming dogs.
It’s sad when everything has been done to give him a great life by his new family that it’s backfired on them so badly. Over-exciting him hadn’t occurred to them as part of the problem.
It’s very possible that the laser light merely woke a latent behaviour in him that he had done in his previous life. We will never know. I am convinced the key is to get him calmer and more relaxed on all counts which means that his humans must be calmer and quieter around him too.
Each shadow-chasing dog does it his own way, so I don’t go into complete detail here as to our approach. Anyone with a dog who fixates needs professional help. A clicker isn’t a magic tool, it’s just a bit of plastic. It’s worse than useless unless used properly.
It would be a good idea if these laser lights sold in pet shops for cats, came with a written health warning.
A while ago I went to see two entire male Westies that had previously played and slept together, and now had started to growl and go for each other. They were doing really well until a month or so ago when things went downhill again. There had been problems at home with worry and tension and these little dogs will probably have picked up on it. The people have been inconsistent. I went to see them again last night.
Both dogs were back to their compulsive carpet-licking. Westie Milo was barking at any animal on the huge TV. Both are back to charging out into the garden, trying to get ahead of each other, often sparking off trouble. Every little thing gets them going and it snowballs; the more aroused they become, the more reactive they are so the more aorused the become, and so on.
We have put some new management suggestions into place. Both dogs are shown (one is entered for Crufts this year) and accustomed to being in a crate. I suggested one soft crate in the sitting room. Then the instigator of the growling can quietly be put in in the crate and both given something to chew – an alternative to carpet-licking that helps them to calm themselves (they can’t usually be given bones or chews because it could start a fight). With Milo’s barking at TV, again he can go in the crate and it can be covered. He is on ‘animal watch’ and his keen eyes spot the smallest animal on the screen! Something to do with dog’s eyesight and HD TV makes this possible. We let them into the garden, but before doing so the lady slipped a lead on each dog, waited at the door for calm, stepped out and only let the dogs off lead one at a time – the calmer one first. This worked perfectly. The people must remember to do it each time now for a while.
They had a Thundershirt for Milo and the fireworks (Merlin isn’t bothered by them). It made little difference apparently. While I was there we experimented with the Thundershirt and the carpet-licking. The Thundershirt went on Merlin and he stopped the licking and relaxed, completely calm. We put it on Milo and it made no difference at all. It was a graphic illustration played out before my eyes with two dogs of the same breed with the same habit, and of how a Thundershirt works very well with some dogs and not with others.
Here is the link to the story of my original visit: http://www.dogidog.co.uk/?p=9323
A week later and things are settling down again: “Thought I would give you a quick update a week after your visit. After having to put Milo in the crate a couple of time on the first couple of nights, things have greatly improved…..there has been very little, if any, growling. In fact, they have been playing the last couple of mornings when I have been having my breakfast. And evenings have been very good as well. So, hopefully we are moving in the right direction again”.
From the moment the lady appears in the morning Archie was banging a ball into her legs until she starts to kick it about. She ‘has to’ play ball before anything else. The gentleman refuses to oblige so the whole behaviour centres around the lady. When they have guests, the gentleman talks to them while the lady kicked balls around the garden. She may throw several balls at once. We sat in the garden and I could see at least six.
It may sound ridiculous written down, but this has crept up on her gradually and to her seemed quite sensible. She is doing it out of devotion to her dog, concerned he’s getting enough exercise and stimulation.
We soon saw what happened if she ignored him! He was digging holes in the lawn, running off with bits of wood, digging up and playing with plants – anything in fact that might get attention. And it did!!
I put him on a long line and we worked on calling him away from these things and to us, rewarding him as he came (he had no choice because I drew him gently in each time) and before long he was lying spark out in the sunshine. We discussed harmless and more constructive occupations he could be offered to give him some healthy alternative activity.
To start with the lady was looking very tense. It was her belief that her dog needed constant stimulation and that she was being cruel to ignore him. She was living in constant guilt – even feeling guilty if she leaves him for a couple of hours though they have evidence that he’s perfectly OK. When they are out they have a web cam to watch him.
As she began to see things more from Archie’s point of view the lady visibly began to relax. She was beginning to see that by the constant playing and activity she was simply winding him up. Wherever she was Archie wanted balls, not the lady for herself but as a ball thrower.
On walks he would sometimes become so excited that he would circle and leap and bite at the man. It’s like he was being constantly wound up with a big key and was over-wound. There is a school of thought, encouraged by Cesar Millan (it’s possible in order to make good TV we don’t see a balance), that in order to make a dog good you have to exercise the hell out of it. Whilst I agree there are many dogs who get far too little exercise and stimulation, there are only a few breeds designed for sustained activity.
Anyway, they are going to put Archie out of the way and they are going on a ball hunt to remove all balls! There is going to be no more ball play for quite a while and then it will only be with a ball they produce and that they put away again afterwards. Meanwhile, they will try a frisbee – one Frisbee – or a ring which they won’t leave him with. Then they will look at more constructive and less stimulating pastimes for him – natural things like chewing a bone or even a sand pit for the terrier in him to dig in.
He is a really lovely natured dog, who without this constant stimulation, fuss and worry will grow into a wonderful well-balanced adult dog.