Monthly Archives: December 2014

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday


Everybody thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.

-W.R. Purche

The Dangers of Playing with Laser Lights

Howie* was an adorable little teddy bear of a dog. He wiggled as I sunk my hand into his plush, soft, curly fur. A delightful Cavachon, Howie adored people and loved to meet new friends. He sat beside me on the sofa, leaning into my touch. The room was dark other than a single lamp, the curtains not just drawn but clipped shut. Howie’s foster caregivers told me about his obsessions as we sat in the dim room, being careful not to move and throw shadows on the floor. I took notes, pausing occasionally to pet the little dog.

Howie was surrendered to the rescue when his self-injurious behavior became too much for his owners to handle. He was housetrained, friendly to people, and a delight with children. When he arrived at his foster caregiver’s home, he sported an oozing, open wound on his muzzle and nose. Howie was obsessed with lights, and would do anything to try to catch one… including harming himself.

Photo by Chris Dixon

Photo by Chris Dixon

Howie’s obsession started out, as most do, innocently enough. As a young dog with lots of energy, Howie’s owners found that he enjoyed chasing a laser light. They used the light to exercise him at least twice a day and he chased after it delightedly, racing throughout their living room. They sent him up and down stairs after the elusive light, onto the sofa and under the table, around and around until he was tired out. It seemed like the perfect exercise solution on cold Minnesota days when none of them wanted to go outside.

Howie soon began to play the light game even when his owners weren’t using the laser. He stalked shadows and light patterns on the floor, staring intently as he crept forward until he was close enough to pounce. He loved the reflections off his owner’s watch crystals and from the prism in the window. Outside, he was entranced by the movement of the shadows from sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree or birds flying overhead. He no longer sniffed on walks, but instead searched constantly for the next light.

During laser play sessions, Howie’s intensity began to concern his owners. He bit at the carpet where the laser had been and slammed into walls. They threw away the laser and attempted to dissuade him from these dangerous behaviors by putting him in his crate whenever he did them. He persisted, chasing lights and shadows in their home. Soon, Howie was spending the majority of his time in his crate, with a blanket thrown over the top to block out any light.

When he was loose, Howie damaged his owner’s home. He tore chunks out of the carpet and bit at the walls. He broke a front tooth attacking the wall and chipped several others. Soon, he had an open wound on his muzzle that wouldn’t heal from slamming himself into the floor, walls, and furniture in his attempt to catch the lights and shadows that taunted him. Howie’s owners had a new baby, and they were concerned that his behavior put their child at risk. They surrendered him to rescue.

While extreme, Howie’s story isn’t unusual. Light and shadow chasing are some of the most common obsessions found in dogs. All breeds can develop these issues, but those who were bred for strong gazes, such as herding breeds and Pointers, seem to be especially at risk.

Light obsession most frequently develops after owners use a laser pointer to exercise their dog. Unlike toys or treats, lights cannot be caught. This is incredibly frustrating for many dogs, who never “win” the game. Even after you put the light away, many dogs continue to search for the elusive light. Shadow and light chasing behavior can develop soon afterwards.

For this reason, I highly recommend against using a laser light to exercise any dog. It’s impossible to know which dogs will develop issues until they happen, and it’s just not worth the risk. If you do decide to persist in using a laser for exercise, consider having the laser eventually lead your dog to a small pile of treats as you end the game so that he “wins” something. However, complete avoidance of the game is preferable.

If your dog begins to show light or shadow chasing behavior, know that the sooner you intervene, the better the prognosis becomes. Howie’s case was extreme in large part because it had been going on for so long: nearly five years by the time he was surrendered to rescue. Early intervention greatly increases the likelihood that you can help your dog.

If your dog begins chasing lights and shadows, the first thing to do is to increase his physical and mental exercise. Oftentimes this intervention alone can be enough in the early stages. My dog Trout showed this behavior as a young dog, and will occasionally still stare at the wall near lamps if she hasn’t received enough exercise. Whenever your dog begins to obsess, redirect him to an appropriate activity. Trout is usually redirected by physically getting in between her and the wall, then calmly moving her away from the area. Avoid making a big deal over the behavior – both reinforcement in the form of treats or excessive attention, or punishment in the form of any aversive can make this behavior worse. In fact, stress can be a huge factor in many obsessive behaviors, so any intervention that includes aversive consequences for obsessing (such as using an electronic collar or swatting your dog) can greatly increase the chances that your dog will obsess.

If your dog’s obsession has been going on for a long period of time or is so severe that you’re unable to easily interrupt it, it’s worthwhile to discuss medication options with your veterinarian.

Howie’s foster family did just that, starting him on fluoxetine (the generic for Prozac) at the advice of the rescue’s veterinarian. They also began a steady behavioral modification regimen of appropriate exercise, training, and management. Howie wore a Calming Cap when he went on walks to block his ability to search for lights, and was rewarded handsomely for learning several new tricks. His foster family was gradually able to open the curtains, first on cloudy days, then at night, and finally on sunny days. They worked hard with him for months and months, helping him to cope with his former obsession.

Sadly, Howie’s story does not end well. After months of hard and loving work by his foster family, the injury on his muzzle had healed over. He was taken into the vet clinic for dental surgery to repair his damaged front teeth, and stopped breathing during the operation. The veterinarian was unable to revive him.

While Howie’s story was sad, there is a silver lining. He had several months of peace with his foster family, finally free of the light-chasing obsession that had so overpowered his life for so many years. He discovered the joys of using his nose and began to love the sport of nose work. He snuggled and got brushed, and got a chance to wriggle around in the grass and sleep in a bed. He was loved.

If you currently use a laser light to exercise your dog, I urge you to reconsider. While Howie’s story was extreme, it’s not uncommon. I work with obsessive dogs much like Howie regularly. Most of these cases could have been avoided with some minor changes to the dog’s routine. There are better ways to exercise and stimulate your dog. Save your laser light for powerpoint presentations, and you could save your dog from a lifetime of obsession. It’s a fair trade, and Howie would approve.

*Howie’s name and identifying details were changed at the request of his foster family.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Janos Rusiczi

Photo by Janos Rusiczi

Be a reflection of what you’d like to see in your dog. If you want responsiveness, be responsive. If you want respect, be respectful. You get in return what you give.

-Kathy Kawalee

4 Tips for Socializing a Sick Puppy

I could tell something wasn’t right with foster pup Cranberry minutes after bringing him home. As he coughed and wheezed, my mind instantly turned to socialization.

Socialization is a bit of an emergency with any puppy, but even more so if your puppy is ill. Cranberry’s cough and runny nose severely limited the number of places he could safely be taken, and since he didn’t feel well it was important to keep socialization sessions very short so as not to tax his limited energy reserved or already-stressed immune system.


The early experiences a puppy has, both good and bad, shape who that puppy becomes. Along with your puppy’s genetic package, socialization experiences form your pup’s opinions about new people, places, sounds, sights, and other animals. The socialization window – that magical period of time when puppies are especially open to new experiences – begins to close around twelve weeks, and is over by sixteen weeks for the majority of puppies. While socialization needs to continue through adolescence and into adulthood, negative experiences or a lack of socialization during the first critical months of a dog’s life will forever change or stunt the development of that puppy’s brain. At eight weeks of age, simply waiting for Cranberry to recover before beginning the socialization process wasn’t an option.

So, how can an ill puppy be socialized?

No paws on the ground: With a taxed immune system, Cranberry was more vulnerable to infectious diseases – not to mention potentially contagious to other dogs. This meant that it was important not to expose him to areas where other dogs had or would walk. Whenever we went on socialization field trips, Cranberry experienced the world from the safety of my arms. He was not set down anywhere away from home until he had been on antibiotics for a week, was no longer showing signs of illness, and was current on vaccinations.

Think outside the pet store: Lots of businesses are happy to welcome a clean and friendly puppy in his owner’s arms. Furthermore, the employees at book shops, craft and hobby stores, and hardware retailers are much less likely to spread puppy germs on their hands or clothing. And of course, airborne infections can still spread even to or from a pup in arms, so pet stores are simply not safe options for most ill puppies. Luckily, employees at our local banks and business offices where quite happy to snuggle eight-week-old Cranberry and feed him treats.

Park it: While it was much too cold in Minnesota for southern-bred Cranberry in the early days, he was quite happy to watch the world go by from the heated comfort of my car. Bring your pup on field trips to the local grocery store and pet shop parking lots. Parking garages can also provide wonderful socialization opportunities in the form of new people, smells, staircases, traffic, and even elevators.

Socialize outside the species: This one requires a bit of checking with your vet, however most common puppy diseases are not contagious to other species. In addition to introducing your puppy to lots and lots of new people, consider letting him meet friendly pets of a variety of species. Cranberry met my gerbils at home and also sniffed cats, guinea pigs, turtles, finches, and even some curious koi as large as him who came to the top of the aquarium to touch noses. Dog-dog socialization beyond interactions with my two adult females had to wait until he had recovered, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be learning lots about how to relate to other animals in the meantime.

1010147_10155035006560001_7249262806007038995_nI’m happy to report that Cranberry’s cough and runny nose have resolved, and his energy level is now that of a typical playful puppy. He’s well enough to receive his next needed vaccine at this point, and will soon be joining me at training classes and playgroups to catch up on his dog-dog socialization. Some thoughtful socialization in the meantime has kept him on track with the developmental needs of any puppy, and I’m proud of the friendly, affectionate little ten-week-old he’s become. As long as his future adopters* commit to attending puppy classes with him and continuing his positive experiences with others into adulthood, I expect he’s going to mature into a lovely, solid dog who will be a joy for years to come. And isn’t that the point?

Have you ever had a puppy become ill? How did you handle that pup’s socialization needs while he or she recovered? Please share your stories and tips in the comments section below

*Cranberry is currently available for adoption and looking for a wonderful home! If you live in the Minnesota area and are interested in adding this charming boy to your life, you can apply to adopt him through the rescue’s website here.