Maybe two months after I adopted Chance, I spied a laser pointer in the "Suggested Items" section while shopping on Petco.com.
GENIUS! I thought. This will be a great way to get Chance to burn off some puppy energy while I sit in one spot! It will also probably make for some hilarious YouTube videos.
Into the cart it went.
It arrived in a box full of other toys and treats. Chance delightedly tore through each and every one with zeal before I finally cracked open the laser pointer.
Honestly, I THOUGHT I was witnessing "unbridled joy" as Chance tore through the apartment chasing that red dot. It was ADORABLE how panicked he would get when it disappeared, and how doubly frenzied he would get upon its return.
We played with it for maybe 30 minutes. By the time I decided to put it away, I was not sure I wanted to break it out again. There was something...unsettling about the way he went after it. Gone was the floppy-puppy-ness with which he played with his other toys--it had been replaced by something hard and keen and very very serious.
After some light Googling, I surreptitiously threw that laser pointer in the trash and desperately hoped I hadn't visited lasting psychological damage on my poor unsuspecting puppy.
Why You Shouldn't Play With Laser Pointers
As you may have suspected, the moving light activates your dog's prey drive. Fun, right? Doesn't fetch do the same damn thing? Yes. However, games like fetch have a satisfying end--they get the ball! (And, in Chance's case, he can sit down and crunch on the ball instead of ever bringing it back to me. Jerk.)
With a laser pointer, there is no satisfying conclusion. THIS is the real problem of the laser pointers--the red-dot game lacks the closure of capturing the prey, which can lead to some serious behavioral problems.
As AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Breanne Long says, "many dogs continue looking for the light beam after the laser pointer has been put away; this is confusing for your dog because the prey has simply disappeared. This can create obsessive compulsive behaviors like frantically looking around for the light, staring at the last location they saw the light, and becoming reactive to flashes of light (such as your watch face catching the sunlight and reflecting on the wall, or the glare of your tablet screen on the floor)."
Dogs also can't connect the fact that the red dot is coming from the laser pointer. When your dog sees you get the ball out for fetch, the game is obvious: human has ball, human throws ball, dog chases ball, dog gets ball, dog MAYBE brings it back to human (if dog is not Chance).
But that red dot seems miraculously unattached to any human, and most dogs can't figure out what gets the red-dot game to start. This, as Fanna Easter on Dog Training Nation puts it, can result in a dog that will "sit and watch floors and walls for hours, waiting for the infamous red dot to appear. Some dog owners assume their dog is asking to play the laser pointer game again and reward this staring behavior with a laser pointer game session. As a result, dogs have learned to stare blankly at floors and walls for hours because the red dot will eventually appear." Seriously, this article has a couple mind-blowing examples of this well-intentioned game going horribly wrong.
Even working dogs, like drug-sniffing or bomb-sniffing dogs, are susceptible to this effect. "To maintain sanity, they are taken on dummy missions where they are allowed to 'find' things to keep them sharp," writes Claire Beaudrealt on BarkPost.
Uh-Oh...So...What Would One Do If One Has Already Been Using a Laser-Pointer On One's Dog? I'm asking for a friend.
First of all, be honest with yourself about your dog's level of damage. If he's doing weird stuff like staring at the wall or freaking out when headlights flash through your windows, don't try to fix this yourself--get a professional trainer.
If you haven't been playing with it that long and your dog doesn't seem to be suffering any psychological damage, take a cue from the bomb-sniffing dogs. Stash some treats, then "lead" your dog to them with the red dot, so they experience the satisfaction of having "caught" something. Then gradually phase the game out entirely. This video is actually a great summary of the whole issue (even though it's from some super-weird website which I'm pretty sure should have been called "John Tesh Explains It All (With Gib Gerard)!"
What Can We Play Instead?
If your dog has a stronger prey drive than your exercise drive, you've got a couple options that won't visit psychological damage on your poor pup.
First, good ol' fetch can be enhanced with the help of a ChuckIt! Launcher. This thing gives even the least athletic among us a major-league throwing arm.
If you don't have a safe area to play long-distance fetch, try a flirt pole! It's basically a stick with a lure on the end--you stand in one place, and drag the lure around for your dog. You can buy these ready-made on Amazon, but when Chance was a baby I MacGyver'd one together by tying a Skinneeez toy to a Swiffer broom handle with some string and it totally worked (until Chance chewed through the string).
Whatever you do, remember that the best game you can play with your dog is one where you play together. And hopefully doesn't make him doubt reality.