I’ve been asked a few times to blog about dog reactivity towards vehicles, but I didn’t think at first this was necessary. There are many similarities between a behavior plan for dogs with reactivity towards cars and reactivity to anything else, such as people or other dogs. It seemed like blogging about car reactivity would just be redundant. But over the past months, I’ve had several clients working through this issue with their dogs, and while the protocols are the same as with other types of reactivity, there are a few big differences. Car reactivity has to be one of the most challenging behaviors to deal with on leash, because it is next to impossible to avoid cars in most places. You can choose your routes carefully in order to avoid dogs or people, and you can turn around if you see them coming. But cars are fast, they’re unpredictable, and they’re everywhere. Furthermore, polite dog guardians know to cross the street when they see other dogs coming on a walk. But have you ever seen a car turn down a side street to avoid stressing out a dog taking a walk? It just doesn’t happen. So folks with car reactive dogs are on their own.
One other big difference when working through this issue is the amazingly high amount of risk to both dog and guardian. If a dog lunges towards a car and the leash slips through the owner’s hands, or any piece of equipment breaks, the dog could be run over by traffic. Owners can get pulled into traffic and pulled down when cars are coming as well. This really ups the ante when working with dogs who bark, lunge, and try to chase cars.
First, I’m going to give you a plan for training a dog around traffic before this becomes an issue. The same technique would actually be applied if your dog is already reactive, but with some major tweaks. So if you have a new puppy or adult dog, listen up. Here’s your training plan:
When walking, mark each time your dog notices a car pass, and pay with a high value food reinforcer. You can use a marker word or a clicker. All your dog has to do is notice the car. Maybe that’s by turning towards the car, or you may just see an ear flick indicating they heard the car. This should look really boring. Most golden opportunities in dog training look like nothing is happening. That’s your opportunity to reinforce your dog for doing exactly what you wanted – nothing.
But there’s more. If you apply this simple equation on your walks- car=treat – you’ll start to notice your dog looking to you when a car passes. When this happens, you’ll know the magic (science) is working. Your dog is seeing cars as the cue to look to you, instead of chase, fixate, or start to get worried when they go by. It is really cool when this happens.
Great, you may be saying, but my dog won’t take treats around cars and is already reactive. So that neat little plan won’t work. Now what?
Yes, I know, that’s exactly why it’s a training plan for dogs who are not yet displaying reactive behaviors towards vehicles. Here’s what you’re going to do if it’s a bit too late for preventative training:
First off, and you’ve heard me say this before, management is the most important first step of any behavior modification plan. Management in this case means blocking opportunities for your dog to practice reacting at cars. It is imperative that you find ways to fulfill your dog’s exercise and enrichment needs where there are no cars. And I get it, that’s really hard. But it’s also really important. Here’s some suggestions:
Evaluate your dog’s exercise needs. Your dog may be fulfilled easily by using strategies that don’t involve walks at all, especially if they are not high-energy. Utilize your back yard if you have one. Back yards are good for fetch or tug, which are great exercise. Yards are also great for mental games, like food scatters in the grass to activate the almighty powers of sniffing and foraging, which dogs need to do. You can train tricks or basic behaviors as well, and food rewards can be tossed to get your dog moving.
If you live in a truly urban environment, you may have great options for indoor gyms you can take your dog to for some awesome exercise as well. If you live in a suburban or more rural setting, opt for sniffy walks on a long line to help your dog decompress and “be a dog.” And either way, check out Sniffspots. These are outdoor spaces people rent out to dog owners and there are usually off-leash options with full fences. Give it a whirl on the Google.
If you have a truly high-energy dog (try not to mistake energy level with stress level) you’ll need to combine several of these strategies to keep them occupied. It’s going to be most necessary for you to find all the hidden non-car spots you can to keep getting your dog’s needs met. Also, keep in mind that neighborhood walks can be enjoyable, but they’re not great exercise for a high-energy dog. There are lots of other ways to get those needs met.
After you’ve got the management on lock-down, you can start to train. Quality is better than quantity when it comes to dog training. You’ll implement the exact plan I’ve laid out for training your dog prior to seeing any reactivity, but you’ll do it just once in a while. You’ll need a space with as much distance as possible from cars. Gradually, you’ll work closer and closer, once you see your dog is starting to realize cars are the cue to look to you. Most of your exercise and enrichment time with your dog will be spent utilizing your management options. That way, each interaction your dog has with a car will be as positive as possible, as you work your way closer and closer to the distance you’re desiring for your dog to be able to see cars calmly.
Why do dogs become reactive to cars? Well, dogs instinctively follow motion. Herding breeds are particularly known for chasing cars because they are hard-wired to chase. Other breed groups do it too. And for some dogs, there is an element of fear involved. Cars are loud and annoying and come out of nowhere. There’s no real reason dogs should be ok with that. But thankfully, dogs are really willing to work with us and get their instinctual needs met using alternative outlets. They’ll also exchange emotion-based behavior for other behaviors. This is, of course, only possible if enrichment and exercise needs appropriate for the individual are met, management is careful and thorough, and training is methodical and above all, kind.