Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Why Do Dogs Chase Things?
Wondering how to stop your dog from chasing cars, bicycles, and all the like?
It is a natural behavior for a dog to want to chase things that move away from them. Indeed, if you want to train your dog to have good recall, there is no better way than by moving away and inviting your dog to chase you! The instinct to chase in dogs is an innate behavior; something dogs do naturally and without the need to be taught to do it. The act of chasing, of course, is self-reinforcing in many ways, so let's first take a look at why chasing is reinforcing.
- It Feels Good: If your dog's exercise and mental stimulation needs are not met, your dog will decide on its own how to release pent-up energy. When the opportunity arises, your dog will say yes to chasing and will likely ignore any or all of your attempts to stop the behavior. In such a case, the feeling of chasing is so exhilarating that it will override any attempts to call your dog. Your dog may care less if you dangle a slice of baloney in his face! You can't blame him though; this emotional high is self-reinforcing, as neurochemicals are bathing the brain and producing a natural high for the dog.
- It Is an Innate Behavior: Prey behavior is instinctive in many species. In dogs, this instinct is present to make them good hunters. The prey behavior sequence, according to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, encompasses the following behaviors: orient, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, and dissect. Luckily, selective breeding has significantly reduced the biting, killing, and dissecting parts of the sequence (herding dogs have a strong prey drive, they will eyeball, stalk, and chase sheep, but they have inhibited their bite and will not kill). However, while years ago dogs used to hunt vermin, chase rabbits, or herd cows, nowadays, cars, joggers, squirrels, and the occasional neighbor's cat will make good replacements from a dog's perspective!
- It Is Reinforcing: If your dog does not like the UPS truck or other dogs walking by his property or if your dog hates bikes, then chasing them away is strongly reinforcing. Why? Simply because, from your dog's perspective, he is sending them away. And if your dog is territorial in nature, he may think he owns the whole neighborhood! But here is the issue: If chasing causes the other dogs to leave, the biker to move away, or the poor mailman to run for his life, to your dog's eyes he has succeeded and scored high. Rover 1, Mailman 0. The behavior will likely repeat, repeat, and repeat the more it is practiced. A pattern is then established, requiring quite some effort to eradicate.
- It Makes Dogs Feel Better: In the case of dogs chasing cars, dogs may be chasing them because they do not want them near their property due to territoriality issues or there may be a fear component at play. Dogs may dislike cars because of the noise they make (many dogs are reactive toward cars with loud engines), or because they are big and look scary. While it may sound odd for a dog to chase something they fear, this is often a way dogs respond to intimidating stimuli.
- It Stimulates Reactivity: If your dog is stressed, various hormones responsible for raising awareness, heightening arousal levels, and sharpening the senses come into play. The effects of these hormones make dogs more reactive and more likely to chase things.
- It Eliminates Hunger: If your dog has a history of chasing animals to eat them, then he is following what nature instilled in him naturally. This is a natural behavior, and unfortunately, it is hard to eradicate because it is strongly reinforcing. It is wrong to assume that predatory drive is aggression; it is just a natural behavior in dogs genetically linked to survival.
At What Age Does Predatory Behavior Start?
Generally, at six weeks, puppies in the litter start playing in ways that mimic the hunting skills necessary for survival. These "games" are just ways puppies start practicing future hunting behaviors. As the puppies grow, they may start stalking anything that flees, such as a butterfly or a leaf gently moved by the wind. Further down the road, at around five to six months, puppies naturally feel motivated to chase bigger things such as bikes, skaters, and joggers, explains Clarissa Von Reinhardt, author of the book Chase: Managing Your Dog's Predatory Instincts.
What Breeds Are More Predisposed?
The breed of the dog plays a relevant role because many breeds were selectively bred for hunting and their chasing abilities. These dogs have a strong predatory drive, and if not given a job, they may choose to find their own source of entertainment. Herding breeds such as Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Aussies are notorious for chasing things if their energy is not channeled in the right way. Sighthounds have a very strong will to chase and this category includes Whippets, Greyhounds, Afghan Hounds, etc.
However, the breed is not the only thing to keep in consideration. Dogs coming from strong working lines are often known for having strong predatory instincts and drive. These dogs are not average pet material. Good research is a must before adopting a dog from strong working lines.
What Senses Are Involved?
Many people would think that the nose would be the "king" of a hunting spree. While it is true that, being equipped with more than 220 million olfactory receptors, a dog's nose would be the best equipped to lead the hunt, the truth is that tracking smells is also the most tiring and exhausting way to hunt (ever seen how tired a dog is after practicing nose work?). According to Clarissa Von Reinhardt, dogs generally use their eyes first (the less tiring), followed by ears, then nose to follow a scent, and finally nose to the ground to trail/track. But of course, each breed is unique in its hunting methods (i.e., sighthounds primarily use their eyesight, hounds primarily use their noses).
Is It Predatory Behavior or What?
When dogs engage in predatory behavior, they will typically be quiet stalkers. By nature, dogs know well that they cannot be barking their heads off to chase prey. Yes, you may say, so what about working terriers and treeing coonhounds? Tree dogs are known for barking upon noticing prey up a tree. In this case, we are looking at modified hunting methods due to selective breeding. Indeed, yappy terriers and vocal tree dogs were selectively bred to be noisy so to alert hunters about the presence of prey so the owner could take action. Flushing dogs were also selectively bred to flush prey out of bushes so the hunter could point and shoot. Retrievers were bred to retrieve downed fowl in lakes, all delivered with a soft mouth leaving zero tooth marks.
In all these cases, we are looking at modified predatory behaviors. But by nature, generally speaking, dogs are quiet stalkers. Barking would prove deleterious in such circumstances, or the prey would startle and take off! So if a dog is barking its head off as it is chasing something, it is most likely acting on territorial aggression or fear. Or it simply belongs to a breed that was selectively bred to be a noisy hunter! To learn more about barking behaviors, read Barking Genetics or Environment?
Chasing Prey Techniques
The modus operandi of dogs when it comes to chasing varies based on the animal they are preying on. For instance, small prey such as mice or moles are typically pounced on with the front legs for the purpose of breaking the animal's neck or spine.
Larger animals such as rabbits are typically grabbed by the neck and violently shaken for the purpose of breaking the neck. If you observe a dog playing with a toy and shaking it from side to side, this is a part of an instinctive behavior used when hunting. If you own a dog that plays with its toys in such a way, you need to be very careful about how this dog behaves around small pets.
Very large prey requires the cooperation of the pack. Dogs may circle the prey with some approaching ahead and others behind, in a coordinated effort to take down the animal. This teamwork is quite amazing and can still be observed in wild canids today. However, most dogs, nowadays, lack the experience to take down a very large animal, unless they are taught from a young age.
Read More From Pethelpful
The Best Book for Chasing Dogs
How to Reduce and Extinguish the Chasing Behavior
Regardless of the underlying cause, it is important to discourage chasing behaviors because there are many risks at stake. In the case of chasing cars, the most obvious is that a dog chasing cars is at peril, because a driver may at any time run over the dog. At the same time, things can even get uglier; the driver may swerve to avoid the dog, risking crashing against oncoming traffic, or the dog may be hit, become projectile, and injure an innocent bystander.
In the case of chasing animals, the dog may run into a trafficked area, totally oblivious to oncoming cars. Not to mention the fact that dogs that chase joggers, bikes, and kids on skateboards are a big liability! If your dog chases cats or small dogs, he may injure these pets or even kill them, leading to potentially big problems.
Make Management Top Priority
Management, in this case, is key. The dog must stop engaging in the behavior since the more he engages in it, the more it will reinforce. Generally, dogs tend to chase not when the bike/car/kid on a skateboard is approaching or passing by, but rather, once the trigger is slightly past them. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on the dog in particular during this time if the dog is being walked on leash.
Management means setting the dog up for success. Do not flood your dog with intense exposure to stimuli. Keep in mind that dogs are most likely to fail when lots of prey is around which is at dawn, dusk and in the night. Help your dog become obedient, be proactive!
Observe Body Language
You need to prevent your dog from lunging by watching his body language before he reaches that point of no return, when your dog is in "its own world" and unable to respond. Signs your dog is about to chase something are:
- Raised Head
- Wrinkles on the Forehead
- Fixated Stare
- Stiffening of Body
- Closing of the Mouth
Note: Of course, if you spot something your dog is likely to chase, and you know given the opportunity, he will lunge for it, make a swift about-turn before your dog notices it.
Avoid Getting Tense
As seen above, stiffening of the body and quivering in dogs is often a signal of noticing prey. You may see dogs stopping, becoming tense, and sometimes even shaking in anticipation upon spotting a squirrel. If you become tense as well, your dog may perceive it as if you are participating in the hunt or perceived danger.
Try to experiment with this: suddenly on your walk, stop, freeze and look at something in the distance; very likely your dog will become a proactive member and look as well. He can become excited, reactive or scared based on his temperament and predisposition. If you can, therefore, try your best to stay relaxed on walks and don't rush. Any forward movement done suddenly will increase your dog's adrenaline surge regardless if your dog is in a predatory state or a reactive/fearful one. Be calm, relaxed as if nothing is happening. Dogs are notoriously tuned to your body language.
Know What to Expect
Dogs have a great memory. My male Rottweiler once saw a family of bunnies on our walk, and every, every day was looking for them, in that same exact spot! This behavior lasted for months until it was extinguished because no more rabbits were seen in that spot. This must be part of the marvelous instinct of hunting.
If you know your dog has seen an animal on a walk and he continues becoming aroused on walks in that certain area, it helps to avoid that area, walk at a distance from it or distract your dog with treats. Keep in mind that dogs have a great memory of where they spot prey or where they got to chase something, this is something linked to survival.
Make Sure Your Dog is Not Hungry
Because predatory behavior and chase behaviors are strongly correlated to eating, if your dog goes on a walk when full, he should feel more lazy and less likely to want to chase prey, further explains Clarissa Von Reinhardt. A hungry dog is a dog in hunting mode!
Desensitize Your Dog
Last summer, I fostered a Labrador/Border Collie mix with a history of living in the fields. This dog had a strong chase instinct and I think she had a history of eating prey. I was always marveled on walks when she caught cicadas making them buzz miserably, and then eating them as if they were the best snacks on earth! I knew she must have hunted rabbits, rats or moles for survival, from the way she reacted to any little noise of grass moving.
Because prey always caught me unprepared, I had to find a way to desensitize my dog to these sudden noises and movements. So I had to get creative. I gathered several rocks and got into the habit of carrying them in my pockets. As she looked away, I would toss some rocks in the fields and quickly made a smacking noise with my mouth to grab her attention, followed by high-value treats.
Practice after practice, she got into the habit of looking at me for treats rather than trying to chase. To make these set-ups further realistic, I got into the habit of inviting my hubby to drag a long line attached to a stuffed animal along for walks in the fields. At the sight of the "prey," I made smacking noises and encouraged my dog to chase me for a treat instead. This "modified" prey behavior was a win-win situation for both of us.
Creating set-ups is important for the desensitization process. If your dog cares less about a slice of baloney dangled in his face when he sees prey or something he is prone to chasing, you are too close and have lost your opportunity.
Try instead from a distance. If your dog chases bikes, work from several feet away or start working when the bike is stationary. Make it less intense. Find the distance your dog responds to high-value treats and eats them and work from there. To learn more about dog behavior modification read A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification.
Train an Alternate Behavior
Dog owners often tell dogs what not to do, but what about telling them what to do and rewarding them for it? Make sure you create a replacement behavior for chasing that your dog learns to perform by default. This could be doing a few steps of attention heeling, following you in an about-turn and sitting in front of you, or anything else that does not involve chasing.
Rewarding this alternate behavior lavishly is a must, especially during the initial stages of learning. Training an alternate behavior also opens the path by default to counter conditioning. If your dog chased bikes from fear, now upon seeing a bike your dog will no longer think, "Oh, a bike, I better chase it away! Bark, bark, bark!" but will rather think "Owner, a bike, a bike! I will now look at you, where's my treat, where's my treat?!!" This accomplishes three things: it works to change the dog's emotional response towards stimuli yielding a more confident dog, it builds a better bond with the owner and it helps achieve better control, a win-win situation for all!
Channel the Chasing
If your dog has a strong chasing instinct, it does not hurt to channel those instincts towards something good. If you own a herding dog, chasing and herding big balls such as in the sport of Treibball is a good idea. If your dog loves to sniff prey, invest in training nose work or enroll in search and rescue classes. Redirect your dog to appropriate chasing/prey toys such as balls, frisbees and tug toys. But don't overdo it; too much chasing games will create an adrenaline rush which may be counterproductive, explains Clarissa Reindhartd.
Increase Your Bond
Last but not least, a big role in getting your dog under better control is to increase your bond with your dog. Make yourself interesting, play games on walks, hide treats under a pile of leaves, and change speed and directions often so you become unpredictable. Your dog should trust you and you should provide gentle guidance so your dog feels safe around you. This comes after some time and is what makes training so much worth it!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Will it harm my dog if she chases and catches a rabbit? And will she will eat it?
Answer: It depends. Some dogs will just shake the dead rabbit and carry it around like a favorite toy, others will consume it. Eating rabbits can be risky for the fact that the bones may lodge in the dog's intestinal tract if not chewed properly. On top of that digestive upset is a common problem seen when dogs just eat something different that they are not used to eating. Intestinal parasites (like tapeworms) are also a possibility from ingestion of rabbit meat.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 01, 2012:
Instincts are so innate and ingrained that they cannot be stopped or changed completely. Thanks for stopping by!
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on October 01, 2012:
We have a yellow lab, Sadie and a brown husky, Meisha. Meisha doesn't chase anything but grasshoppers from time to time. Sadie, is a different story! She loves to chase squirrels and rabbits. She caught a squirrel one time and it bit her through the lip. I don't think she tries to actually catch them now. She has been attacked by deer two or three times now for chasing them when they had a fawn nearby. You would think she would learn from that! Now, she will just watch them unless we are outside, then she thinks she has to protect us and will chase them off. This was very interesting, voted up and more!