It’s almost a reflexive behavior, a car drives by and Rover pricks his ears and in no time starts running after it, but why do dogs chase cars and why do they become so fixated on performing this behavior? Until dogs can talk, we can only make some assumptions, but for sure there must be some reinforcing element to it. Behaviors that are reinforcing tend to become stronger and repeat, that’s a fact, but there may also be some instinctual portion at play that makes chasing cars so appealing. So let’s take a closer look at what triggers car-chasing behaviors in dogs and some tips on what you can do about it!
A Matter of Territory
Car chasing is likely to have a territorial component as it’s often targeted towards cars and trucks that drive by regularly. The dynamics may be similar to dogs who chase the mailman.
The dog chases and barks, and since cars move away, the behavior is reinforced because Rover (in his head) believes that his barking and chasing is what sent the vehicle away.
You can almost notice the dog’s satisfied expression as the car or truck pulls away. It’s almost as if Rover scored 3 points and the car scored zero.
Territorial behaviors in dogs tend to occur because dogs feels that intruders are a threat. It likely has a fear component at play. Dogs will bark, lunge, chase and even threaten to bite in an attempt to get the intruding person, animal or car away.
Territorial behavior can therefore be categorized as a distance-increasing behavior considering that the dog wishes to create distance with his intimidating behavior. Chasing cars because of territoriality though is just one of the many possible reasons dogs may chase cars, so let’s see some more.
A Matter of Prey Drive
What do electric poles, trees and street lamps have in common? They are boooring! Dogs therefore have no reasons to chase any of these objects because they don’t move. Possibly, the most dogs will do with these items is just hike their leg and pee on them. Add movement though and these objects would likely become more and more interesting.
Cars attract dogs because they move and emit noises. To some dogs the sounds of strong car engines may even sound like a big growl that instills fear in them. Many dogs are attracted by the movement of the wheels and they try to nip them as they see them rotating faster and faster. Chasing cars therefore becomes as appealing as chasing a ball, a Frisbee or that squirrel that visits the yard.
The behavior of chasing cars and trying to nip at wheels is often seen in frustrated herding dogs. Without access to a herd of sheep, these dogs will try to”round em’ up” and chase anything that moves (bikes, cars, children etc). Instead of nipping at the heels of cows and sheep to get them moving, they focus on the wheels and can get quite obsessed about them!
A Matter of Boredom
The majority of dog breeds were selectively bred to accomplish some specific tasks. Pointers were pointing, retrievers were retrieving, spaniels were flushing, setters were setting, herding dogs were herding and dogs therefore spent the majority of their days working and their evenings were spent relaxing by a crackling fire. Life was tiring back then!
Chasing cars may therefore fulfill a dog’s need to get rid of pent-up energy and meet his needs for mental stimulation.
Let face it: when dogs are bored it’s not like they can do crossword puzzles, Sudoku or engage in some passive thumb-twiddling. Instead, they need to find forms of entertainment such as digging, barking and chewing, so it’s not surprising if a bored dog makes of car chasing his new hobby!
The Power of Reinforcement
American psychologist, behaviorist and author, B.F. Skinner once stated behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated, behaviors that are not reinforced tend to die out-or be extinguished. As mentioned, the behavior of car chasing has a component of reinforcement either because the dog is bored, is attracted by movement or simply wants the car to leave. Perhaps Rover’s inner motive is even a combination of all these things!
The problem with behaviors that are reinforced is therefore that they will persist and strengthen with time the more they are rehearsed. Add to that the fact that dogs are creatures of habit and therefore have a tendency to follow an unvarying routine.
Part of stopping a dog from chasing is therefore preventing dogs from engaging in their problem behaviors. By managing the dog’s environment, preventing the dog access to cars, one can therefore create a starting point to work on the problem behavior while preventing continual rehearsal.
Warning: It’s important to consider that the behavior of chasing cars is not only addicting, but a dangerous practice too. No dog should be allowed to take off after cars as the risks for being run over are high! In the presence of cars the dog should be kept either safely leashed, behind a fence or in another safe area.
Keep Your Dog Under Threshold
Managing your dog’s environment, in other words, preventing direct access to cars, should be done when you are unable to be actively participating in teaching your dog. When you have time to dedicate yourself to working on the problem, you will have to introduce your dog back to cars, but i’ts important to do so very slowly and systematically.
The first step, is keeping your dog on leash at a distance where he sees the cars, but doesn’t react. This non-reactive distance, in behavior terms is known as keeping the dog “under threshold.” At this distance, your dog should be able to better cognitively function and will be more receptive to learning an alternate behavior to chasing. If your dog appears too distracted or is trying to pull towards the car, you are too close.
In addition to moving at a distance your dog is better able to control himself, you should arm yourself with some tasty treats. Skip kibble or that cookie he gets every, single day. Instead, pick high-value treats such as pieces of freeze-dried liver, chopped low-sodium hot dogs, Cheerios and so forth.
Teaching an Alternate Behavior
Starting from the distance where your dog seems more responsive, you can therefore start playing a game. Every time a car passes by, you will make a smacking sound with you mouth and toss a treat on the ground for your dog to chase. Repeat, repeat and repeat several times in a row until your dog gets the idea that car equals chasing the tasty treat tossed to the ground.
You know your dog is catching on when the moment he sees the car, he looks at you in hopes for his favorite treat being tossed.
(NOTE: if you want to hand-feed your dog the treat that is fine too, I have found that tossing the treats works best for dogs attracted to movement)
Now, you can gradually start getting closer to cars, but don’t over do it. If you get too close, you risk that your dog will have a setback, and then you’ll need to take several steps back to where he was better under control. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to changing dog behavior. You need to be patient and persistent if you dog has a long history of chasing cars as the more your dog has rehearsed the chasing-car behavior the more it put roots and will be difficult to eradicate.
As you progress, at some point, you can start introducing some operant behavior at the sight of the car. Instead of just tossing the treat, ask your dog to sit and then toss the treat. If your dog loves to fetch, you can also try to let him sit and instead of tossing the treat, you can toss a ball close for him to catch (keep him still on a long leash when you do this) or a tug-toy to play with.
With time, the act of chasing cars should become more and more boring, because it has been overridden by a more rewarding activity to do. If you are still having problems or your dog is just too focused on the cars, employ the help of a dog trainer/behavior consultant using positive training methods to help you out.