Check out YouTube and you can find an alarming number of videos of dogs chasing the light from a laser pointer, often while people laugh in the background. The reason I use the word “alarming” is that laser pointer chasing can lead to serious behavioral issues. Watching people laugh at a situation that is often distressing to dogs is distressing to me.
Though it’s common for people to be amused by the behavior of a frantic dog pouncing on a moving dot of light, it’s not funny for dogs. Their experience in that situation is often seriously unpleasant and very tense. The movement of the light stimulates dogs to chase, but there is nothing to catch, and that is why the game is bad for dogs. The constant chasing without ever being successful at catching the moving object can frustrate dogs beyond anything they should have to tolerate.
Working dogs who are trained to find things like explosive or drugs become upset if they never have a “find”. These dogs need regular successes, but their work may not provide them. That’s why it is standard practice to set up simulated missions in which working dogs are guaranteed to discover what they have been taught to find. Successful searches keep their skills sharp and prevent psychological problems.
A lot of dogs become obsessive about the light from laser pointers, and there are many cases of dogs who were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder after (and perhaps partly as a result of) this activity. Dogs become preoccupied with the light, then transfer that interest to similar stimuli, sometimes developing a behavior problem in which they chase lights and shadows. It may look fun and entertaining to people, but it’s usually anything but fun for dogs.
No matter how much dogs respond to them, I recommend against the use of laser pointers. It’s just too likely that the game will negatively affect the dog. If someone is unable to follow this advice, there is a way to minimize the risk of a dog developing behavioral problems and of experiencing psychological damage. The laser light can be used as a decoy that allows the dog to find treats or a new toy. Though the dog does not ever succeed at catching the light, there is the success of discovering other items. Using the light in this way lowers the risk of trouble slightly, but it does not eliminate the danger. I only recommend this as a last resort for clients who are unwilling to stop engaging their dog with the laser light.