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.
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.)
How to Manage a Dog Who Already Chases Cars
- Keep your dog contained in a secure kennel or fenced yard so that he can’t chase vehicles on the road.
- If you walk your dog off leash, do so only in places where he isn’t able to see or access roads.
- Teach your dog a really reliable recall so that you can call your dog whenever you need to. Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called, for help. To be successful, you’ll need to start your dog’s training away from traffic areas so that your dog can focus on learning about the benefits of coming to you. Only when your dog is extremely reliable at coming when called should you “test” him around traffic. Even so, be sure to take him by roads only on a long line (a 15-foot or longer training leash) in case he doesn’t respond to you.
Please note: When dogs learn to come when called under relatively calm and quiet circumstances, they often don’t know that your cue “Come!” means the same thing when they’re in very exciting and distracting circumstances. They’ll chase the car, and then come to you. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to call a dog off once he’s in pursuit of a car. Be prepared to devote a great deal of training time and effort to teaching the recall. Even when your dog does come when you call, realize that he’ll still be motivated to chase cars. It will be your responsibility to make sure that you detect a situation early enough to call him back before he takes off.
- One last resort option is to teach your dog to associate chasing cars with an unpleasant or punishing experience, such as an obnoxious noise, repulsive spray or something painful. Although devices that deliver punishing experiences to dogs are available online or in pet stores, it’s crucial that you work with an experienced CPDT trainer or certified behaviorist to ensure that the treatment is humane and effective. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for help locating a qualified expert in your area.) The behaviorist or trainer must work with your dog over many sessions, in a variety of circumstances with different cars on different roads, in order for the procedure to make a difference in his behavior. Some dogs are so highly aroused by the anticipation of a chase that even associating cars with very strong or painful punishment won’t keep them from chasing. This is why it’s so important to work with an experienced professional. She or he should be able to determine in the first few sessions if this procedure is likely to work for your dog.
What NOT to Do
- Do not expose your dog to moving traffic and physically beat him. This is inhumane and highly unlikely to deter your dog. At best, he might refrain from chasing cars when you’re nearby, but he won’t learn not do to it when you’re not around. At worst, you could injure your dog, damage his trust in you and cause further behavior problems, such as fear and aggression.
- Do not purposefully let your dog to take off after a car and then allow him to hit the end of a long line at a dead run. This could cause severe damage to your dog’s neck and vertebrae.
- Do not attempt to frighten your dog off chasing cars by intentionally “bumping” him with a car or throwing something out of the car window at him. You could end up seriously injuring or killing your own dog.