Today’s question comes from our Q&A inbox, and it’s about a dog who is chasing and herding a vehicle. I have not had a car chaser myself (we live in an urban environment, so off-leash is only far out in designated desolated parks), but I do have one dog (yep, firey Mort) who probably would act this way given the chance. He’s a cattle herding mix, and gets very amped up when fast, huge vehicles pass by when we’re on the sidewalk. I believe it’s triggering some instinct, and he’d probably chase given the chance. Or get himself killed. It’s something we’re working on, too!
We have a 10 month old blue heeler mix pup who is not in the least afraid of vehicles. He adores my husband, so wants to be as close to him as possible… even when Dennis is INSIDE the car, truck or tractor! Buddy will not only run near the vehicle… but sometimes in the case of the tractor… BETWEEN the tires while its moving! We are constantly swerving and slamming on the breaks to avoid hitting Bud. We tried a shock collar, and this only makes him go closer to the vehicle to be near Dennis. We are SURELY going to run our own dog over if this continues. Can you make any suggestions? He is otherwise a very smart puppy.
It sounds to me like Buddy is herding your vehicle while it is moving, which is something that some dogs of his type will tend to do. The good news is that many people have faced this problem, and dealt with it successfully using positive, non-painful training techniques. I’ll outline some ideas here, but I would also encourage you to have a consultation with a local, positive training consultant who can observe the behavior in a controlled setting and demonstrate some techniques to use.
There are a lot of things at play here, but the one that is most important is instinct. Why is it the most important? It’s the element that you are not going to be able to get rid of entirely (herding dogs are hard wired for certain behaviors), but you will need to work with it to “re train” a behavior around these vehicles. And you’re lucky – herding type dogs are often very sensitive, and very perceptive – and smart like you mention.
Your heeler is triggering off of the movement, and part of the overall experience is that movement, the sound, and the sight of the vehicle. The closer and more intense everything is, the stronger the drive. And this is instinct – I’ve taken my herding type dogs to evaluations, and it just triggers built in inclinations to move, follow, stop, and so on. This can transfer to vehicles, like you’ve experienced. I think in your case it has more to do with the vehicle movement triggering the herding than it would your husband (although I’m sure it has to do with him as well).
You will need to retrain the behavior in baby steps. Buddy, as you’ve seen, feels a strong urge to run in and around the vehicle while it’s moving – so the first step will be to teach him some commands away from cars. Then leashed around cars, and finally off leash once you’re confident he understands the appropriate behavior around vehicles. When you start working with cars again, work with them while they are stationary, then turned on (sound), moving slowly (while Buddy is leashed), then moving a bit faster, and so forth. Start with the vehicles that Buddy has the least interest of (perhaps a stranger driving it, instead of your husband), and then slowly work towards the vehicle Buddy most wants to chase. But what to train? That’s next.
Training tips for a dog herding vehicles
So what to train – obviously you want Buddy to move away from the vehicle, so you might work on having him run to you, and move behind your leg. I would have him do this whenever a vehicle is turned on in your vicinity. You are going to have to think about these things to make that happen:
- It has to be more rewarding than chasing the vehicle. Buddy has to get a “party” when he returns, great treats, etc. You might use your husband as the person to run to to start of with, and advance to where Dennis is in the vehicle once you have a lot of the training under your belt.
- Buddy has to understand what you want – so what you’re teaching him has to be clear, or something he already knows (an established recall, “touch” your hand, command to move behind you, etc)
- Buddy has to understand it’s expected – you do this with your tone of voice, mannerisms, etc. – but in a way that’s not punishment. Buddy has to want to run to you!
- “Generalized” – Buddy needs to understand when he hears any vehicle he typically chases, he does a particular thing.
- Keep Buddy safe. Make sure you do all training on-leash until you are certain Buddy knows what to do, and is following your direction consistently.
So start with any commands you will need in order to achieve the actions you want Buddy to do, and do so in an environment that does not have anything that he wants to chase in it (indoors, enclosed yard, etc). Target training is useful, because you can teach Buddy to run to whatever the target is (say, in your hand), and tap it. It’s visual, consistent, and clear – so it helps in loud and busy environments. Then combine this with a command. You need to have a good recall so Buddy knows to run to a person when a command is given. Again, start with this in the house and yard with no vehicles, then increment as described above.
Also in a quiet controlled environment, you can teach Buddy to stop a chase. You can do this with throwing a ball or disc (whatever he likes), and when you say a command he’s to stop going after the toy and return to you. Returning to you has to be better than chasing the ball, so this is more advanced training (after Buddy learns to recall, target, etc).
You will need to make sure Buddy learns to associate the sound of a vehicle being turned on, or running, to run back to you. To achieve this, start by getting a recall and then turning the vehicle on immediately after the recall is given – you want the two things to tie together in his head.
And when the vehicle is moving, Buddy will want to chase it – that’s his instinct. With a cattle dog, he may instinctually even want to jump onto it or run in front to “stop” it. Make sure that when he runs back to the human, away from the vehicle, that he’s watched very carefully or leashed if you have any feeling that he might return to chase. He needs to learn to stay with you, in addition to returning to your side.
Another option for a dog herding vehicles if the others don’t work
Another suggestion I have would be as a last resort, and you would need to partner with an experienced behaviorist or trainer who has used this technique. It is typically used when other training does not work, and when safety is involved (and moving vehicles falls into this category). You would essentially make the vehicles a feared object: Buddy chases the vehicle and immediately at that point something scary would happen and at exactly the same time the closely bonded human takes off. This is sometimes called “abandonment training”. Dogs lose a lot of confidence when their humans are not around, so if they fear an object they may not chase it as a result. Buddy learns to not chase, vehicles are bad, and to seek the bonded human, among other things. Timing is crucial, and it has to be executed very carefully so the dog does not get injured and it instills the correct type and amount of fear – so I would only recommend this if all of the above doesn’t work, and you find an experienced trainer who has successfully performed this kind of training with multiple dogs already.
Throwing away the shock collar
Finally, I would recommend throwing away the shock collar – you of course won’t need it with this training, but you also won’t need it with any other training in the future. The shock collar only works when the dog knows what the pain means – what action is expected. So you need to train anyway, which can be done with non-painful techniques. But additionally, the problem with these tools is how they can backfire. With such intense emotions, and because they deliver pain, you are playing with fire. Shock collars can intensify whatever emotion is currently in effect, and further raise cortisol levels in your dog. This can send your dog over the top, or cause him to react in unpredictable ways. It also associates whatever is happening with pain, and that can either stop what your dog is doing or drive him to act out on that pain and fear. This can result in redirection biting, attacking the perceived pain, and so on. Herding dogs have a double-whammy: they are highly sensitive dogs, and can quickly become fearful. Training with pain is often a quick path to a fearful and reactive dog who could also become shut down. Because your puppy is young, and developing behaviors that will stick for life (unlike adult dogs), I’d recommend getting rid of it.
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