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Chasing cars and bikes — basically anything that moves quickly — is instinctual for dogs. They are predators, after all. Chasing and “attacking” moving objects can be problematic and dangerous. And the longer that your pup has been chasing cars, the more rehearsed it becomes. Practice makes perfect! It becomes a habit, a perfected and deep-rooted behavior.
Clearly car-chasing puts your pooch at a great risk of getting injured and possibly killed. Additionally, it’s a liability. Swerving to avoid your dog may mean that the car ends up injuring the driver or others around them. The same goes for bike-riders or skateboarders: your dog or the rider could easily be injured.
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, our reader asks:
“How can I train my dog, Duke, to stop trying to bite/chase tires? Lawnmowers, ATVs, bikes, cars, trucks? As soon as we call him he comes, he will nip, bite, and try to destroy them. Once he sees something with moving tires it’s like everything in the world is invisible.” – Wheelie Woes
Let’s discuss a few things to help Duke to stay safe and calm around moving vehicles.
But first, here are some other useful articles:
Why do Dogs Chase Things that Move?
The first thing to do is for Wheelie Woes to identify the reasons why Duke might be chasing wheels.
1. Herding Instinct
Different breeds have been bred for different traits. Some dogs have been specifically bred to herd other animals and that instinct can be very strong. Not only can instinct be strong, but also highly satisfying. It can be challenging for your dog to focus on anything else. Herding dogs also instinctively nip at the heels of the livestock, so your puppers may attempt to nip at the tires of cars or bikes. Though this may be more typical of herding breeds, it’s also not impossible for other breeds, like Duke who is a pitbull.
2. Prey Drive
Wild-living dogs, like wolves and coyotes, hunt for food. Again, this behavior is instinctual. Hard-wired. Prey drive is a sequence of behaviors that, one started, can be very difficult to interrupt. The process starts off with stalking, it involves chasing, and ends in killing. This instinct will be stronger in some dogs than others and some parts of the sequence — like chasing — might be stronger than others — like killing. In fact, herding is a highly specialized version of the predatory sequence that’s all about stalking and chasing.
There are lots of reasons why moving things can be scary. Cars and ATVs, for example, are loud and unpredictable. Some dogs have been under exposed to these items during their critical socialization period (3 weeks to 16 weeks), predisposing them to becoming more fearful adults. A not too uncommon reaction to something scary is to chase it (lunge, bark, and bite). The best defense is a good offense, right?
Many dogs enjoy chasing a ball or a flirt pole. It’s a game. Playing chase can be inherently self-rewarding, and this might extend to cars, bikes and other objects that move as well. Dogs play and predatory behavior can often be linked.
Teaching Our Dogs What to Do Instead of Chasing Wheels
It is important to keep in mind, punishment is not going to get us very far in this situation. We need to take proper precautions to make sure that the behavior isn’t practiced, and we need to teach our pups what we want them to do instead. An incompatible behavior. For example, if we teach our dog to sit when greeting people, sitting incompatible with jumping up.
How can we apply this to cars and bikes and skateboards?
1. Prevent Wheel-Chasing Using Leashes and Fences.
If practice makes perfect, we need to stop the rehearsal of the behavior. It needs to be effective and consistent. Wheelie Woes may choose to have Duke on a leash or indoors when people pull in the driveway.
Letting your dog bark and chase, run the fenceline, or run free will seriously hinder any other training you attempt.
2. Control the Environment.
When not training, Wheelie Woes should prevent exposure to Duke’s triggers.
Save those triggers for controlled and positive training scenarios. Avoid places where there are bikes and ATVs, avoid the skateboard park, or try walking away from main roads where there is ample space to position Duke at a distance from those spinning wheels or moving vehicles.
In other words, you’ll need to alter your daily walk time or route so that your pup only sees wheeled objects during training.
3. Stay Below Threshold
As Wheelie Woes says, “Once he sees something with moving tires, everything else in the world is invisible.” When a dog is above his threshold level (his tolerance level), it’s almost impossible to do any meaningful training.
It’s important to stay in a low key environment with lots of space, so that staying level-headed is an easy task.
This might mean exposure to cars and bikes first while they are not moving, or moving slowly and while they are at a safe distance away. Or, perhaps so far away that they can just hear them and not see them. The biggest mistake is being too close to the trigger when this process starts.
It’s important that Duke never reacts in an undesirable way. When training, be aware to not overexpose to triggers. A parking lot full of cars coming and going or a busy street will be too much!
4. Try the “Engage/Disengage” exercise.
- From a starting point well below threshold (so far enough away from the car, bike, or skateboard), say “yes” as your dog looks at the object without fixating or reacting.
- Follow the “yes” immediately with a highly desirable food reward, like hot dog, cheese, or chicken. Repeat this exercise until he begins to look back at you at the first sign of the trigger.
- Now, instead of saying “yes” as he looks at the trigger, say “yes” and reward as soon as he looks back at you. Note though, however, he must first look at the trigger before turning back to look at you.
Effectively, we are teaching our dog an alternative appropriate behaviour. If he chooses to look at us and get a treat, he is obviously not chasing the car or ATV.
Pro tip: Pull out the big pay for this exercise. While kibble may work at home in your living room, save the special highly desirable treats for working on Engage/Disengage. It’s hard for him, so pay what it’s worth!
5. Decrease the Distance, Increase Speed
Once Duke has become an expert at a far distance from his triggers, it’s time to start closing the gap. This should happen very slowly- so slowly that there is never a reaction. So slowly that he is always below his threshold level.
So if you started your training with your dog watching a parked car from across the street, you will slowly move closer and closer.
If the car starts to move or multiple cars show up, you’ll need to back up again! And don’t assume that cars = bikes = motorcycles = skateboards. You’ll have to work on each type of wheeled object on its own.
Dogs speak with their body, and there are ways we can tell that a dog is coming too close to his threshold level. These are some of the things a dog may do just before the chase and bite of a moving vehicle:
- Fixated hard stare at the trigger
- Wrinkled forehead/furrowed brow
- Stiff body posture with tail straight up and ears forward
- Forward weight lean
- Tightly closed mouth
If Duke shows any of these signals, he is too close. Wheelie Woes should move Duke farther away from the item and start from an easier level.
What if My Dog is Fearful?
Dogs who are fearful can also react in undesirable ways. Especially when restricted by a leash. Dogs who are fearful enter into a fight or flight mode. With no option to flee, they may become reactive. And it probably had worked! “I bark and chase and bite, and the bike leaves!”
For fear, we can use the same strategy listed above. The most important thing is that we pair the trigger with something good (a high value treat) so that his emotional response changes from something negative and panic-inducing, to something predictable and positive. By offering treats when the trigger is visible, we can make a positive association with the car (car = treats).
Ultimately, it comes down to good management to prevent rehearsal and teaching our dogs what we would like them to do instead. Instinctual, hard-wired behaviours can be a hard habit to break, but with consistency, we can make the world a safer place for them.
Erin is currently from Alberta, Canada where she works as a canine behaviour consultant. Erin is a CDBC and CPDT-KA, working with all types of dogs with all types of training needs. She has a MSc in Anthrozoology (the study of human and non-human interactions), and is a PhD candidate in the same field. Erin will be relocating to Christchurch, New Zealand at the end of 2018.