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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

<Back to behaviour articles

This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Problems of chasing

Everyone is probably aware of why dogs like to chase moving objects. Chasing and bringing down game is at the root of survival for dogs living in the wild. This behaviour is even more obvious when the “trigger” for the chase is a cat or a flock of sheep. Less obvious, perhaps, is when the trigger is in the domestic context of a jogger, a cyclist or a car. Depending on which trigger sets a dog off, the conclusion of the chase could be dangerous for the victim or the dog, or both. Therefore, it is a behaviour which must be brought under control by the owner.

The best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it all together. Puppies which are both de-sensitised, corrected and/or diverted into socially acceptable behaviour from an early age are less likely to become problematic chasers later in life. This means taking your puppy out, under your control, as early as possible. Take the puppy into the environment in which it will be expected to live among all these exciting, stimulating “moving” objects, and have it behave in a socially acceptable manner. A young puppy will begin to de-sensitise to moving objects if they are a regular part of the everyday scene. Your reaction to any potential “chasing” trigger should be to remain calm and you should have lots of diversions and rewards at hand, such as titbits and favourite squeaky toys. If the puppy does not find out how much fun chasing can be and is diverted into more appropriate behaviour, it is much less likely to take up the habit later, even when it has a chance. Be particularly aware of the necessity of introducing children to a new puppy.

Your dog should always be rewarded for returning to you, even if it previously did something wrong. The last thing your dog remembers is that it came to you and you punished it. Your dog does not link the punishment to earlier behaviour.

Unfortunately, most of you are probably thinking “but what about the dog who has been chasing joggers for the past 5 years and my schedule involves getting up at 4am in order to walk the dog and avoid everyone.” Well, you are not alone! There are a large number of you that must hit the street with your dog in the wee hours of the morning in order to avoid meeting other dogs, people, cyclist, joggers, etc. Otherwise, walks are a misery both for the owner and for the dog. The owner is embarrassed by an out of control dog who can never be trusted off lead. The owner would like to allow the dog to play with other dogs, or run freely after thrown objects, but the risk is too great. There is always the chance that the dog will trigger to something else to chase or, even worse, end up injuring itself or its victim. So what is to be done?

You must now do what should have been done when your dog was still young. You must de-sensitise and divert your dog from the unacceptable behaviour. The problem is that your dog now knows how much fun chasing can be; it has found out how little control you have over this behaviour; and you may have already lost your temper out of frustration and fear (and embarrassment!) and disciplined your dog when it finally decided to return to you. So now you must back up and start over.

Try teaching or re-teaching some basic commands. For instance, try using new commands for behaviour your dog is supposed to know. If you have been using “Come”, try changing to a dog whistle or, instead of “No” try using “Leave it”. The reasoning behind this is that your dog has been hearing (and ignoring) the old commands for some time now. He also may have linked the old command with unpleasant experiences. Let’s start over! This time you are not to give a command when you cannot control the outcome, and when your dog returns to you it will ALWAYS be praised, petted, played with or given a titbit. Or all of the above. Being by your side is absolutely the best place to be.

On walks, take along the favourite squeaky toy (or titbit) and when your dog begins to “trigger”; i.e. stiffen body, ears alert, focused on moving his moving object, command “Leave it!” and divert the attention to the toy/titbit. Do not wait to make your command when your dog is already in full stride. Try to anticipate your dog’s reaction. Watch for body language which tells you he/she is going to trigger, and make your command at that time. You should remain in control by having the dog on an extended lead or long line during these training sessions. Also, make sure you encourage your dog to play appropriate chase games, such as chasing a Frisbee or a ball.

It may also be helpful to set up situations in which the victim; i.e. cyclist, jogger etc. “strikes back”. This could be an aversion such as a spray of cold water, or a noise aversion such as a sealed tin of pennies thrown on the pavement near the dog. Timing is crucial. Triggering by the dog should be immediately met with the aversion and then you should immediately bring the dog to your side with the extended lead and whistle where he/she will be met with praise, toys, titbits etc. You are the best place for your dog to be when anything runs by!

Remember that the longer your dog has been getting away with a behaviour, the longer it will take to extinguish it, particularly with behaviour such as predatory chasing. Chasing is a primary instinct with the dog and, once allowed, the reward to the dog is so great that it is often difficult to extinguish.

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