Dogs chase things because they love it. It’s a self reinforcing habit, which means that the more they do it the more they want to do it. Your dog doesn’t need a reward to learn to chase things like he would in order to learn a command like ‘Sit’ or ‘Stay’. Chasing is what is known as internally reinforcing whereas training a dog with rewards and positive reinforcement is conditioned training.
To tackle a chasing problem we need to understand why it happens and work with the dog’s natural way of behaving to change the focus of what he is doing.
Different breeds of dog have inherited greater or lesser chasing drives. Chasing is part of the hunting process and the skills are instinctive. All dogs inherit them to some extent but their behaviour has been modified over time by breeding, and can also be modified by training. For example a sheep dog will chase sheep, but its drive to kill has been modified to produce a dog which should not attack, but gather up its prey. Some dogs will chase their prey and then hold it at bay. That’s not to say that all dogs of a particular breed will behave in the same way any more than they are all the same colour or size. Some dogs have such a strong chase instinct that it can become a significant problem if not controlled or channelled when they are young. It can lead to a dog learning to kill if the chance arises or being run over by the car it pursues down the road.
In all these situations there are ways to modify the behaviour if it is a problem to their owner, but it must be remembered that it is impossible to take away the instinct, only to replace it with another activity.
If your dog has learnt to attack as well as chase, or worse still to kill, there is no point in punishing the behaviour. He really can’t help it. The positive emotions he gains from what he is doing, the production of dopamine and higher levels of endorphins, are so rewarding and so desirable, he can probably not even hear you as he tears off after the latest moving object.
I would not recommend shock collars and/or aversion therapy in dogs with persistent and serious chasing habits as any method which causes them pain or distress may induce hatred in them of the object they are chasing if they relate the pain to it and this could make the situation worse.
If your dog is truly a predatory chaser he/she will probably exhibit some of the following behaviours:
- He may get really excited as the prospect of a chase approaches, to the extent of becoming vocal by yipping.
- He’ll be stimulated to chase by the movement of potential prey.
- He may actively seek out things to chase, and chase more than one quarry, although it is likely he’ll have a favourite, most exciting prey in mind.
- He may not appear to be nervous or anxious at all, just happy.
So what can you do about it?
Although it may not seem obvious, the first thing to establish is whether or not there are other stresses in your dog’s life that could be contributing to a stressed state of mind. Sometimes dogs which are insecure will chase as the activity releases tension for them and relieves anxiety in the excitement of what they are doing. There may be other issues that are affecting your dog, such as boredom, separation anxiety or even some undiagnosed phobia, like a fear of loud noises or fireworks. Watch your dog carefully and consider his daily life and habits. It’s not straightforward to establish if a dog is suffering from stress and you may find it a good idea to ask me to help you. These other stresses should be eliminated first as chasing may be made worse when it’s an outlet for other tensions. If they can’t be eliminated altogether then other things can be put in place to help to balance your dog.
Feeling confident in their position in the family pack will lead to greater feelings of security and less fear or nerves, so address Pack Balance, revisit the Basics of Obedience, and address any other psychological concerns. All these things will help your dog to feel less stressed and comfortably secure in his home and in his relationship with you. If your dog behaves in a dominant fashion it is more than likely that in some way he is insecure, as dogs are not mentally equipped to be in charge of human families and if your dog feels that he can do as he wishes it may well lead to stress resulting in aggression, nervousness or other anxieties.
Ensure generally that your dog has plenty of exercise so he is not bored.
Once you are confident that your dog is not anxious or stressed you can take action to control the chasing behaviour.
You will not be able to train your dog when he is actually in the act of chasing, because he won’t even hear you, as the stimulus of the target object is too great. So the first thing to do is to try as far as possible to keep your dog away from whatever he likes to chase. This sounds obvious but every time he chases the target it reinforces the habit, making it increasingly difficult to eliminate the behaviour. At the very least keep him on a lead if you can’t avoid meeting the problem.
The principle of the following method is to ensure that your dog will always come to you when you call him. In any situation a dog will take whatever action motivates him most and you must work to ensure that you give him greater motivation than the object he wants to chase.
Find a toy for your dog to chase and concentrate on encouraging him to chase it in a safe environment without distractions, such as your garden or even inside the house. It has to be something he really likes to chase and you may need to use your imagination to make it similar to what he loves most to chase. Don’t make it too similar though or you’ll only reinforce the problem! Many dogs will be happy to chase a ball so this may not be a problem. Whatever it is, make sure you have two identical toys as the second will be used later.
Keep getting him to chase the object by rewarding him if he does and concentrate on getting him to bring it back to you. Revisit the Basic Retrieve if you need guidance on teaching your dog to bring back objects.
Always keep this toy special by putting it away at the end of a session and not letting him play with it at any other time. Keep up this practice for 10 to 15 minutes 2 or 3 times a day until your dog is really keen on the exercise. After all, he will be missing chasing his preferred target and is now becoming focussed on the new one.
The next stage is to start using a word command like ‘Get it!’ every time you throw the toy for him to chase. Be positive and encouraging and he will soon associate it with the throwing of the toy. You can also occasionally use the command when he’s not expecting it and throw the toy, so he is practising and you are reinforcing the connection between your command and the fetching of the toy.
Now we come to the more challenging part. Put the second toy in your pocket and throw the first one a good distance, with your dog sitting so he can see what you are doing. Keep him on a lead if he won’t sit quietly. Wait for a few seconds and then release the dog. As soon as he moves throw the second toy past his nose and call ’Get it’. He should choose the second toy as it will be moving and the other will be still or ‘dead’. Get him to bring you the second toy and go and pick up the other.
If you find your dog doesn’t chase the second toy it might be helpful to make the first a less interesting article. After a few throws, your dog will probably wait for you to call ‘Get it’ before running. If this happens don’t throw the second toy but get him to retrieve the first one and start again. This time wait until your dog is nearly half way to the first one before calling ‘Get it’ and throwing the second.
At the next attempt command ‘Get it’ but hold the second toy above your head as the dog is running so he can see it and throw it when he starts to return to you.
With each successive throw call him later and later so he’s closer to the first toy. Don’t forget he should be sitting until you release him to chase the toy.
Then you can start sending him to fetch the first toy sooner. You are aiming to achieve a situation where you can throw the toy, send him almost immediately to fetch it, wait until he’s nearly on it before calling ‘Get it’ and wait until he’s nearly back with you before throwing the second toy.
Once you’ve achieved this you need to practice in places where there are distractions, like other dogs and noise. Eventually your dog will replace his desire to chase a rabbit or other unsuitable prey with the desire to chase the special toy you control.
When he hears the command ‘Get it’ and reliably looks around eagerly for the toy, you can try the game in an area where what he chases is/are around but in the distance. Keep a long lead or rope on him. This will inhibit him a little and make it easier for you to control him.
Watch him closely and if he starts to even show an interest in what he chased, immediately start the exercise and throw the toy in the opposite direction. Don’t wait until he’s starting to chase because that is too late. If he does go to chase then go back a step to a less distracting place.
Some dogs can take a while to learn this exercise but it will work eventually and you will find you have a dog who not only doesn’t chase what you don’t want him to but comes reliably when you call him.
You can never stop reinforcing this exercise with your dog, because he will always want to chase and you need to keep reminding him that chasing what you throw is the most rewarding thing he can do.