Why Do Dogs Chase Cars?


FIDO Blog | Jan 21, 2016

Dear Dr. Sip and Melissa:

My dog, Samivel, is well-mannered, endearing, playful, and cuddly. In short, she’s perfect. Almost. She chases cars, and every bit of advice we’ve ever tried has done absolutely nothing. So, I have two questions:

1. Why DO dogs chase cars, anyway? Is it just something to pass the time when not sniffing butts?
2. Is there any hope of her staying by my side when the next SUV whips past? We live on a busy road in Santa Monica.

With thanks from the two of us,

Santa Monica, CA


Dr. Sip: Well, Andy, you and Samivel are ready to join "dog chasers anonymous."  

Melissa: An elite sports team...of sorts. But it's time to quit the club, so here's what you need to know."Prey drive" is one reason that dogs chase cats, birds, discs, tennis balls and Buicks.

Dr. Sip: Dogs are both predators and prey. Some also have high drives to chase anything that moves (think Border collies). As far as they are concerned, that flock of cars zipping down the street is nothing more than some funky, poorly behaved, metal cattle.

Melissa: The other reason dogs bark, lunge and chase cars is that it works. Think about it like this: If a dog barks at a car and it goes away, the dog thinks, “This barking thing works to move things I don’t like.” The next time a car comes close, a dog might amp up the barking to make the car go by faster. This, incidentally, is why dogs bark at the mail carrier.

Dr. Sip: Right! Poor mail person walking up the front steps is just minding his own business, but the dog barks, and from the dog’s perspective, his loud barking made the mailman go away.

"From the dog's perspective, his loud barking made the mailman go away."

Melissa: If it’s not predation, it can be frustration or fear. For starters, take off the shock or prong collar if you are using one. That can increase frustration in dogs, which can increase the angry display at cars going by.

Dr. Sip: If you were shocked or pinched around your neck every time a car whizzes by, you might start yelling in frustration, too!

Melissa: Right. Next, we can’t allow Samivel to practice the behavior we don’t like. In this case, we can’t leave Samivel outside unsupervised lest she practices chasing cars.

Dr. Sip: The best way to Carnegie Hall is Practice, Practice, Practice! The best way to catch a car, or sadly get hit by one, is to chase cars. So for her safety, it’s imperative you don’t allow her the opportunity to chase cars. If you’re in the city, leashes are the law of the land anyway. If you’re in a rural area, not allowing your dog access to chasing cars (physical fences that the dog can’t see through or escape from) is the first step.

Melissa: Second, find a device for walking that you like. I’ve written about how to select either a harness or head collar at my personal blog.

Dr. Sip: Shameless self-promotion!

Melissa: Now that we are limiting her behavior, we have to change the behavior she associates with cars. Right now, it’s lunging, barking and chasing, presumably on leash given that you are on a busy street. I want you to find a quiet side street without a lot of traffic. Using the harness or collar that you chose for Samivel, when you see a car coming down the street, I want you to use “Counter Conditioning” ---

Dr. Sip: But only after you do Counter Shampooing...

Note: Not this kind of conditioning... 

Melissa: Counter Conditioning is basically getting Samivel to stop lunging at cars by doing something else you want her to do. In this case, I want her to look at you, her owner, instead of focusing on the car.

Dr. Sip: This is what we did for our dog, Frieda, in the presence of a Greyhound we used for training. Every time that weird, tall freaky dog walked by, she was rewarded for looking at me instead of the Greyhound.

Counter conditioning works for many problems from Greyhound dogs and Greyhound Busses.

Melissa: This technique is used in a variety of arenas, but is typically very effective! So when a car comes barreling down the road (it’s always best when you can anticipate the situation), find a point far enough away that Samivel is noticing the car, but you can still get her attention. When she starts to turn away from the car, say YES and give her a treat. Lather, rinse and repeat. A lot. Over a period of weeks, decrease the distance between your dog and the cars that are going by as she gets better at turning away from moving traffic. 

Dr. Sip: Obviously you’ll need to keep Samivel on a leash at first to ensure you can make it to the next training situation (e.g., no flat dog). And keep in mind, you might NEVER reach a point that you can trust your dog unleashed or unfenced around cars.

Melissa: Good point. For serious anxiety or prey drive around cars, dogs, skateboards, kids, mail carriers or anything else, please see a certified professional trainer or applied animal behaviorist. They can assess in person what is likely triggering your dog and can help you come up with a plan that is right for your dog.

Dr. Sip: Bottom line, we don’t want Fido to become a Flat Fox Terrier, so safety comes first.

More about Melissa (who wrote ‘Considerations for the City Dog’) and Dr. Sip (who is a practicing vet in Berkeley, CA) can be found here.

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