By Dr. Becker
That tiny, bright-red dot of light your dog loves to chase after could have unintended consequences for his psyche. According to LiveScience:
"The lack of closure in laser-beam chasing could be messing with your dog’s head."
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, animal behavior expert and professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, explains that your dog instinctively chases laser beams simply because, well, they move. Anything that moves like that is begging to be chased. Movement triggers a dog’s innate prey drive, which is why smaller prey animals often freeze in their tracks. And while dogs don’t see colors all that well, they have a keen ability to detect motion with their eyes.
According to Dr. Dodman, the continuous movement of a laser dot stimulates dogs’ predatory systems such that they cannot NOT chase it. “They can’t help themselves. They are obliged to chase it,” he says.
Chasing 'Prey' with No Hope of Catching It Isn’t Good for a Dog’s Psyche
So the question becomes, is it a good idea to trigger your dog’s prey drive using an object she has no chance of catching? Dr. Dodman believes it’s not a good plan, because dogs can get so obsessed with chasing the light that they develop behavior problems.
“I’ve seen light chasing as a pathology where they will just constantly chase around a light or shadow and pounce upon it. They spend their whole lives wishing and waiting,” says Dodman.
Never getting to the point of actually catching their “prey” can drive a dog slightly nuts. The same principle applies with bomb or drug sniffing dogs, as well as search and rescue canines. Trainers of these dogs have learned there are psychological consequences when the animals don’t find what they’re looking for, so their handlers occasionally arrange for them to find a target as a way of keeping them emotionally balanced.
Alternatives to Laser Light Toys
The best way to satisfy your dog’s prey instinct at home (short of letting a live mouse or rabbit loose in the house) is with treat-release or puzzle toys that stimulate the canine drive to hunt, and also deliver a reward for your dog’s efforts.
Another option, if you just can’t put the laser toy away, is to first hide a few dog treats around the room, and then occasionally let the laser dot point out a treat your dog is able to actually “catch.”
What About Cats and Laser Toys?
As a general rule, kitties are less likely than dogs to develop an obsession and accompanying behavior problems as a result of chasing laser beams. You’ve probably noticed your cat has a relatively short attention span and loses interest quickly, so she’s not apt to engage in endless pursuit of a tiny dot of red light. In fact, felines in the wild stalk prey for only a few minutes at a time and then move on.
If you use a laser light toy as a way to help your kitty get exercise, and she’s willing to run and jump at the light for five or ten minutes a day, I encourage you to continue your routine. Too many indoor cats are overfed and under-exercised these days, so if yours gets physically active chasing laser beams, I say go for it.
Obviously, if you notice your cat is developing a laser beam obsession, you should switch to another type of toy that gets her active, but also delivers a reward when she catches up with it. Keep in mind your fluff muffin is a predator at heart, so choose toys that appeal to her natural drive to stalk and bring down prey. And toys don’t have to be high tech. Many cats will respond to a piece of string dragged across the floor, or a ping-pong ball.