Many dogs are confined to a lead, re-homed, or worse, because their owners can’t stop them chasing. It’s not their owners’ fault, they’ve spent hours out in the foulest weather shouting, yelling, pleading, cajoling and worrying. The better dog trainers tell them, “It’s a recall problem. More obedience exercises!” and that might help for a while, but the problem’s deeper than that.
In order to find the answer though, we need to ask a different question. It’s not, “How do I stop my dog chasing…”, or even, “Why does my dog chase…?” but rather, “What does my dog get out of chasing?”
Like any good detective, you always have to look for the motivation. There are a number of reasons a dog can seem to chase, including things as diverse as fear, territorial behaviour and social interactions.
As a result of the very successful APBC predatory chase seminars and the frequent requests for more information on the subject, I’ve expanded this article into a full book.
Because these motivations are all different, the solutions need to be tailored to suit each one, but true chasing is predatory behaviour and we need to identify it as such before we can address the problem. Check the list. If you can tick any two plus the last one, it is almost certain that your dog is predatory chasing.
- It will often be exhibited towards more than one target (cars, ankles, rabbits, cats, sheep, joggers, bicycles?).
- Dogs will actively seek out opportunities by going out of their way to find it.
- They will become excited at the sight, scent and sound of their prey items, perhaps even making small ‘yipping’ noises.
- Chasing may be preceded by stalking or searching.
- It can happen anywhere.
- It is stimulated by movement.
- They look like they are enjoying it – not anxious, scared or worried
What Do Dogs Get Out Of It?
The answer lies in internal reinforcement. Dogs inherit instinctive behaviour that is too complex to be learned by every generation. You don’t have to teach a dog how to dig, he doesn’t learn to lift his leg to pee, they are instinctive actions, called “motor patterns” by ethologists.
Chasing behaviour is part of the inherited predatory hunting sequence. The sequence is genetically “hard wired” and prepares wild canines to catch prey in order to survive, for example, by searching for or stalking it.
“External reinforcement” is the way we usually train dogs: we give them a biscuit or a pat when they do the right thing.
“Internal reinforcement” is when the brain gives the body a feeling of pleasure. It is similar to the buzz we feel when we score a goal, win a race or achieve that top exam result.
Each part of the inherited hunting sequence is internally reinforcing. Dogs don’t need a biscuit as a reward for performing it; they do it out of sheer pleasure. In brain chemistry terms they get a buzz of dopamine every time they perform an inherited motor pattern. This is the same reward system abused by people taking Cocaine or Ecstasy, so you can imagine the addictive possibilities!
In original canine terms, the wild animal inherits exactly the right amount of each part of the sequence to lead it into the next. Because domestic dogs have been selected to exhibit exaggerated parts of the sequence and omit others, the whole predatory hunting sequence is rarely in balance in modern breeds. Variation appears both between and within breeds. Spaniels benefit from a huge internal reward from searching, but little or none from stalking. Pointers get huge internal reward from stalking, but not from a killing-bite, because of hundreds of generations of selective breeding. Individuals within each breed will inherit more or less of each part than others. This is the variability that makes some spaniels better at searching than others, or some pointers hard-mouthed.
“Chase” is a motor pattern, or behaviour, that is inherited. Dogs that chase are being internally reinforced just by doing it. They don’t need to be externally reinforced with a biscuit or a kind word, because the behaviour is rewarding in itself.
Why they won’t stop
Put simply, they enjoy it. Hugely. They enjoy the “high” they get from endorphins buzzing around their body to such an extent that they close down other senses to concentrate upon it. All focus is on the target as the source of pleasure. This is the first reason that owners cannot recall their dogs when they are in full flight. Their dogs simply don’t hear them.
Dogs with a high inherited drive not only derive great pleasure from chasing, they also need to perform it. They are driven to perform the behaviour to receive the boost to their feelings that it provides. They are constantly looking for outlets for it.
A dog with chase drive towards the top end of the scale is not easy to control because it is very difficult to counter internally reinforcing behaviour with external reinforcement. A dog will not stop chasing for the promise of a biscuit simply because a biscuit is not as valuable as the internal dopamine boost from the chase behaviour. In fact, nothing is more valuable than the thrill of the chase. Neither can you punish them into stopping for good.
Dogs with lower chase drives will comply for a while, but if they are not given the opportunity to express the chase behaviour in some way, the drive to chase will eventually outweigh the value of the biscuit or the pain of the punishment. The second reason owners cannot control dogs in full flight is that there is nothing the dog wants more than what it is doing now.
Understanding why dogs chase is crucial to controlling them; knowing that they take massive brain-chemical induced enjoyment from it; that they aren’t deliberately disobeying us, but obeying a stronger internal urge; that they can’t actually help it; that they’re fulfilling a hunger inside them, because they were bred like that.
Once we see chasing from the dog’s point of view it becomes easier to understand how to control them, because training a dog not to chase is not like training one to sit. The desire to sit for a reward is more or less the same for every dog, but each dog’s urge to chase can be negligible, immense, or anywhere in between.
If your dog is of a breed that was originally bred to chase it’s a safe bet they have the genetic hard wiring in their brain that makes it so enjoyable, but it’s also possible to ‘accidentally’ inherit a strong chase tendency in exactly the same way some pups inherit too long or short legs for their breed.
Dogs of this type seek out opportunities to chase because of the enjoyment they receive from it but unfortunately, if we leave them to it, they often direct it towards what we consider to be the wrong target. Children, rabbits, cats, cars, joggers, livestock, aeroplanes, deer, cyclists… remember, they are actively looking for opportunities to chase because it is so nice to perform. They often have a primary target, the one they use the most, and then a hierarchy of others.
The First Step
You can’t deal with a long standing chase problem in isolation. Because we are working within the parameters of internal reinforcement and a need to perform the behaviour, we are interfering with the balance of the dog’s emotions. Dogs have a limited number of ways of improving their emotions and if we temporarily deny them an opportunity their emotional balance may plummet, leaving them stressed and anxious.
The first step therefore is to scan your dog’s environment for anxiety; take out as many challenges as possible and introduce as many emotional improvers as you can. Challenges will include any fears that your dog has, for example noise phobias, separation issues and social concerns. Emotional improvers will include things like chew toys, a dog walker, or Dog Appeasing Pheromone, where appropriate. Reward based obedience training invariably improves relationships and the opportunities for positive interactions.
It seems strange that to stop your dog from chasing things you first need to address something that appears as unrelated as a fear of fireworks, but think about it for a moment. The fear of fireworks makes a dog miserable, and the anticipation of that fear causes deep anxiety. Chasing is a way for the dog to cast off those anxieties and enjoy huge pleasure, improving their emotional bank balance. If we remove the challenges, the need to dispel the anxiety through chasing reduces accordingly. If we can’t totally remove the challenges, and sometimes that just isn’t possible, adding other things that improve the emotional balance will go some way towards reducing the need to chase.
Conducting an environmental scan for anxiety is not a simple matter and beyond the scope of most dog trainers. If you are not sure how you can help your dog in this way, you may benefit from contacting a qualified behaviour counsellor.
Control the Opportunities
Having established a reduction in background anxiety levels, we can start to look at how to control the actual chasing behaviour, for which there is now less need.
The problem arises because we have no control over the behaviour. To control chasing, we need to control the dog’s primary target. But we can’t control cats and rabbits, can we? No, so if we want to control chasing, we change the primary target to one we can control.
Initially we have to prevent the dog from continuing to reinforce the unwanted behaviour. Many owners make the mistake of trying to train their dog when it is actually chasing. Forget it. You can’t. The competition for the reward is too great.
What is your favourite exhilarating activity? Hang gliding, ballroom dancing, cuddling your grandchildren, alligator wrestling, strip scrabble, or extreme ironing? Imagine you are halfway through and I say, “Stop that now and I’ll give you a biscuit.”
No, and neither will your dog.
Conversely, some trainers recommend that punishment through devices like electric shock collars will stop your dog from chasing, and they might, temporarily, but let’s examine what is happening. The dog chases as a way of improving their emotions. They need to chase something to maintain the positive aspects of their life. It fills an emotional hole for them. Punishment not only restricts a source of enjoyment, but also introduces pain and more anxiety into the dog’s life. One of the few ways in which the dog can enjoy themselves has become a source of pain. The overall effect will be to increase frustration and stress, and to make chasing even more important to the dog! Relate that to taking an electric shock in the throat every time you cuddle your grandchildren or glide across the ballroom floor.
If you want to stop your dog chasing rabbits, start by preventing them now. This is not optional, it is essential. Every time your dog chases a rabbit they stay in an addictive feedback loop. “I get a brain boost from chasing rabbits – I need the brain boost – I need to chase rabbits.” Do not take your dog anywhere near rabbits. Change your walk, take them swimming instead, at the very least keep them on a lead, but find a way to stop the continued addiction now. Imagine a little part of your dog’s brain that is labelled, “Got to chase” and another part that has a picture of a rabbit as a label. Every time your dog chases a rabbit, there is an extra connection between the two brain centres. The more connections, the more difficult it is to prevent.
Changing the Target
If the strength of the neural connections are represented by the red arrows in the pictures, we need to get to the position where…
Start to focus your dog on a toy, but not in competition with the problem. Change the chase context; play in a different place. Indoors is always good, or the garden if there are no rabbits. The new chase toy may depend upon your dog’s old preferred target. Many dogs will chase a ball, but inveterate chasers may be so focussed on their primary target that they ignore toys. Be inventive; make the new target sufficiently like the old one to stimulate your dog to chase, but sufficiently unlike it not to increase the brain connections with the old target when they catch it (if the dog still thinks they are catching a rabbit, the neural connections with rabbits are strengthened).
This is pure dog training, so use short bouts and lots of them, in a place with absolutely no other distractions; always stop before your dog gets bored and always end up keeping the toy yourself. Build up those neural connections between the “Got to chase” centre and the one with the picture of the new toy as a label. Play, play and more play.
Once you’ve got your dog’s attention, work on teaching a retrieve. Check here (link to Teaching Your Dog to Retrieve) if you have difficulty in teaching your dog to retrieve a toy.
Do not allow access to your dog’s favourite toy at any other time. Keep it special and always retain it when the game finishes. Your dog will be quite keen to play with the new toy so long as there are no rabbits about.
Keep practising in a place with no distractions until your dog is desperate to play the game. Because you are continuing to prevent other chasing your dog’s chase drive will be high, but focussed on the new game.
Predictive Command – The Best Recall Ever
Now introduce your recall command. Call, “toy!” in a bright and breezy voice every time you throw the toy for your dog. Pretty soon your dog will associate the word with the unconditional arrival of the toy. Start to use it when your dog is not expecting it. Call, “toy!” and as soon as your dog looks, throw it behind you. The word becomes predictive that there is a game on offer.
This is the time to take your training up a notch, for the best recall ever. Always work in a place with no distractions when you are training something new. Take two identical favourite toys and ask your dog sit/stay while you throw the first one as far as you can without using “toy!” command. If your dog won’t sit/stay, keep them on a lead or hold their collar. Wait for a count of five, then give a “fetch” command and release them. Immediately call, “toy!” and throw the second toy past their nose. As the first toy is dead and the second still moving, they will choose the live toy to chase. Go pick up the ‘dead’ one, then ask for the ‘live’ one back and repeat.
In this clip I’ve progressed a little to rewarding “looking at me” with the throw of the second football. I’m also using Belle’s name as the predictive command but your dog will probably respond better to a brand new one like, “Toy”…
If your dog doesn’t stop for the ‘live’ toy but pursues the ‘dead’ one, substitute the first thing you throw for something less valuable, to make it less attractive. Don’t worry if they go searching for the ‘dead’ one after they’ve picked up the ‘live’ one, you have achieved your goal by focussing on them on the second toy.
After three or four throws, your dog will not set off after the first one, but wait for you to call, “toy”. Don’t. Send them for the first one. Start again. This time wait until your dog is a third of the way to the first one before calling “toy” and throwing the second.
Next time call, “toy” but don’t throw the second one immediately. Wave it above your head for your dog to see and when they start to come back, reward with the throw.
Occasionally, your dog won’t chase the first toy, waiting for the second. Don’t reward that with the second toy, but send them on, going with them to find and play with the first one if necessary. You control the game; don’t be manipulated by your dog.
Leave it later and later to call your dog back and then start to reduce the time the first toy is ‘dead’ before sending them. Your final aim is to throw the first toy, immediately send your dog, wait until they are almost there, call, “toy!” and wait until they come all the way back to you, before playing with the second one. It’ll take a little time to achieve, but that’s what I call a recall!
In this clip I’m leaving it very late to stop Belle, but rewarding immediately.
Slowly introduce non-competitive distractions, for example for rabbit chasers, play the game whilst other dogs are about, or where children are playing football nearby. You are not yet ready to compete with the old problem. If you have difficulty finding a good place or if you just need a little more confidence, you could tie your dog to something sturdy with a long line before playing the game. When you feel ready to progress, untie the line and let it drag, making sure there are no loops in it to get caught. Your dog will feel slightly inhibited by the pull of the line and you will have more control. Shorten it by degrees until there is none of it left at all.
Eventually the neural connections between “chase” and “toy” will outweigh those between “chase” and “rabbit”. Your dog will come to prefer the toy to chasing rabbits. The time will vary with each dog and how much previous reinforcement they received, but persistence will pay off.
When your dog spins round and looks eagerly for the game every time you call “toy”, you can test how well you are doing by taking them to a place where there are rabbits, but in the distance. Keep your dog on a long line and when they look in the direction of a rabbit, before they start to run, call, “toy” and play the game in the opposite direction. Do not at this stage wait until your dog is in full flight; remember they close down senses they don’t need, like hearing, when they are chasing!
If they play with you, inch closer to the rabbits next time. If they don’t, back to the garden and reinforce the new toy some more.
Even if your dog responds by ignoring rabbits completely, which they all will eventually, you can never give this up. If you don’t satisfy your dog’s chase needs, they will revert to finding their own targets again. But now you have the ultimate reward! Your dog wants the toy more than anything else on earth and can be asked to perform any behaviour to earn it. Recalls, sits, downs, eye contact, it is the ultimate training tool!
Not only do you have full control over your dog’s chase behaviour, you also have the rapt attention of your dog any time you want it.