[From Tufts December 2011 Issue]
We want to know how we can help my dog. Tan-Tan is a 4-year-old, 60-pound German shepherd mix. When she sees squirrels, deer, etc., in the woods, she runs and chases them. She also does this when she sees cars on the street. We try to distract her with treats and call her name; however, nothing works. Once she sees something moving, she can focus only on one thing. In the house, she is very good following commands. Is there anything we can do help her?
San Francisco, Calif.
Tan-Tan’s prey drive is activated when she spies the quick movements of furry creatures, compelling her to give chase. Moving vehicles can activate this drive in some dogs, too. It’s possible that your ability to refocus Tan-Tan in these situations could improve with practice, though it can be difficult to achieve perfection in every dog.
The trick with obedience training is that you have to gradually increase the distractions faced by your dog while you give commands. If the distraction level is too high, as is the case when Tan-Tan sees a moving vehicle, you won’t get compliance.
You need to find a way to practice training Tan-Tan in situations when the distraction level is little bit lower, so that you can build on success. Will Tan-Tan chase a bicycle in motion, too? If so, you could practice refocusing her while someone you know rides a bicycle very slowly in her view. Reward Tan-Tan with a yummy treat if she is able to make eye contact with you in response to the command “Watch me.” Gradually the speed of the bicycle could be increased. If Tan-Tan stops obeying the “Watch me” command, reduce the speed of the bicycle and try again.
Another way to improve your chances that your dog will obey the command is to increase the distance between her and the bicycle. Work with her on-lead at first, and if you meet with success, try some off-leash work. Try to refocus her as soon as she spots the moving target. A dog who is staring but hasn’t yet given chase will be easier to refocus than one who has already taken off.
Once you can get her attention, asking her to perform a sit command is advisable until the movement has ceased. Once you achieve an ability to refocus her in these set-up situations, then you may see improvement when out in real-world situations.
Until you have better verbal control over Tan-Tan, it’s important to avoid allowing her to be off-leash in an area where she might encounter a moving vehicle. Car chasing can be a very dangerous pastime for dogs and operators of a vehicle. Tan-Tan is a larger dog, and she could be hard to physically control with a plain neck collar and lead. If you haven’t done so already, consider use of a head halter, such as the Gentle Leader by Pet Safe. Head halters lessen the physical force a handler needs to control a pulling dog.
Good luck with Tan-Tan, and don’t give up on finding ways to improve her obedience training skills!
Nicole Cottam. MS, CAAB
Animal Behavior Clinic