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Car Chasing: How to Break Your Dog's Habit

Some dogs like to chase fast-moving things, including motor vehicles. They see a car moving in the distance, and they simply have to give chase. Some dogs are so motivated to chase cars that they'll even lie in wait at the side of the road or in a ditch and, as a car approaches, they'll leap out to head it off. This is obviously a very dangerous pastime. Car chasers are often seriously injured or killed-typically not by the car they are chasing, but by one passing when the dog darts into the road. They can also cause serious auto accidents when drivers swerve to avoid them and are startled by their sudden appearance in the road. Even leashed dogs who are attracted to traffic can pose problems. A leashed dog can get very excited around passing cars-growling, barking and lunging as the cars pass by. He can get so excited that he can injure himself and his pet parent by leaping out into traffic and pulling his owner with him.

Because chasing cars is a dangerous behavior that dogs are often strongly motivated to engage in, treatment should be guided by a professional. If you have a dog who already has a problem chasing cars, consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to help you locate a professional in your area.)

It's best if you can prevent your dog from ever learning that chasing cars is fun. Although chasing is a natural inclination in many dogs, if you can interrupt your dog's behavior and teach him that doing something else-such as turning toward you-is more enjoyable than chasing cars, you can nip chasing in the bud before it becomes a habitual problem.

Prevention

To prevent your dog from ever starting to chase cars, you need to catch the first moment he shows interest in the motion of the car and redirect his attention to you-something else fun! When you're walking him and you see that he shows any interest in the movement of cars, you want to teach him to associate moving traffic with good things from you. Before you go out on your next walk, prepare by bringing delicious treats or a favorite toy. While you're walking, as soon as you see your dog looking at a car, call his name. When he turns toward you, praise him and give him a treat or two or whip out the toy and wave or throw it for him. If he doesn't turn to you when you say his name, wiggle a treat or his toy in front of his nose and lure his head around toward you. When he turns toward the treat or toy, give it to him. Continue to do this each and every time a car passes by until your dog automatically looks at you in anticipation of treats or a game whenever he sees a car moving.

Not all dogs who chase cars from inside a fenced yard will also chase cars when they're loose. But some will as the thrill of the chase becomes too strong to ignore. In addition, some dogs get so excited running the fence that they can hurt themselves or jump the fence. Chasing cars from inside a fence can also develop into chasing other things, like joggers or skateboarders, when they pass the yard. If there is virtually no chance that your dog can get out of the yard and your dog doesn't show any interest in chasing other moving things, car chasing from inside a fenced area is relatively “safe” and good exercise for an understimulated (bored or underexercised) dog. But if your dog is barking a lot or his fence running is otherwise causing problems, or if you think he might be able to escape the yard, you need to interrupt him and bring him inside whenever he starts chasing. Just like when you're walking, the best time to interrupt the behavior is the moment your dog sees the car. This of course means that to stop chasing, you would have to watch your dog every second he is outside. An alternative is to put up a stockade-style fence (solid wood privacy fence) or attach tarps to the existing fence so that your dog can't see the traffic and won't be motivated to chase. If you choose to leave your dog in a fenced-in yard, please keep these two points in mind:

  • Never leave your dog in the yard unattended for longer than 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment and exercise so that your dog is less motivated to chase cars. (Please see our articles, Enriching Your Dog's Life and Exercise for Dogs, to learn more about keeping your dog busy, healthy and happy.)