I think at sometime everyone with a dog experiences the panic when our dog chases something. Especially for the first time. It’s not a nice feeling. The horror of the situation. The fear about what could happen. The loss of control. Once experienced, most responsible dog folks never want to go through it again.
Don’t be irresponsible
I mention responsible dog folks because sadly I’ve seen how irresponsible people behave. Once when walking on common land, I came to a gate beyond which I saw sheep. Grazing on common land they are used to dogs and had plenty of space so we could all keep our distance. I clipped the dogs’ leads on and continued through the gate on our walk. A few minutes later, to my astonishment and complete horror I saw a dog making a top speed dash towards the sheep. The dog then chased the whole herd around the field, yipping and nipping as he went.
You may be asking, where was his person? Well she was casually strolling around the field chatting with her friend. From her relaxed attitude and her dog’s immediate reaction upon seeing the sheep, it seemed logical to assume that this was a regular occurrence. Maybe this was how she exercised her dog? He would certainly be tired when they returned home. The sheer audacity, selfishness and ignorance of her behaviour, the person not the dog, took my breath away. For information on the law against sheep worrying (a misnomer if ever there was one!) and how it affects the sheep, do head over to National Sheep Association’s website
My dogs have also been the victims of being chased. I’m not talking about chase as part of a mutually enjoyable game. This is chasing as a non-mutual, frightening experience. In fact one of the worst chases I ever witnessed was at a workshop when a non-workshop dog (let’s call him Bolt) came running at a delegate’s dog as she was getting her out of the car. I’m sure that the subject of the chase believed she was running for her life such was her terror. Her owner eventually managed to persuade her to jump back into the car and I caught hold of the chaser.
I’d seen the dog before and had spoken to his person a few times as he played with my dogs. Bolt wasn’t a horrible dog, he was a large but friendly lad. However, the dog he was chasing didn’t know that. All she knew was that she had to run and that she was terrified. And perhaps most upsetting was when the chaser’s person told us that he was always doing it and that she had no idea how to stop him. Therefore she just allowed the behaviour to continue at the expense of the dogs he chose to chase.
So this brings up several key points.
- He had practised the behaviour multiple times
- His person knew that the behaviour was ‘wrong’, but she felt helpless
- Why didn’t he chase my dogs?
Practise makes perfect
Any behaviour that is repeated will become stronger. This principle is true for behaviour we want to strengthen, such as learning a new skills. But it is also true for behaviours we want to weaken or eradicate, such as snacking every time I walk into the kitchen! The more you do it, the more you will do it and the better you will become at doing it. Now don’t get me wrong, some of my dogs have been the chasers as well as the victims. But key to stopping the chase is looking at how we could have prevented it in the first place. And the most simple of all actions to take is to put the dog on lead.
For example, if I’m walking in an area where Ella has disappeared on a deer hunt during a previous walk, I pop her on lead until we have moved past the dreaded spot. Or, as in the first example, when I see sheep I automatically put my dogs on lead whether or not I believe them to be under control. It’s just not worth taking the chance that I’m wrong.
The serial chaser will be on high alert when she enters an area where she has previously chased, be that a field of sheep or a public park. If the dog has chased something there once, she will be ready to chase there again. In her 6th year of life, Ella discovered squirrels. This was such an exciting discovery for her, one that I’d successfully keep a secret for so long. But now that her squirrel radar has been activated she is on lead much more often during woodland walks. I’ve put other measures in place too, but we will come to that later.
Knowing that the behaviour is wrong or unwanted but feeling helpless in preventing it is a horrible feeling. When I talk with people who have this issue with their dogs, just the simple idea of putting their dog on lead can be revolutionary. It’s so far from the chasing behaviour that they haven’t even considered it. Having options and strategies in place helps remove the helplessness and replace it with something more productive and positive.
In Bolt’s case, she knew he had lots of energy and that he couldn’t expend that if she walked him on lead. Therefore, on a daily basis she took him to the same place and took the chance that there wouldn’t be any dog for him to chase. She was also desperate for him to make some doggy friends, so she allowed him to run up to every dog he saw. Sadly, her choices are what made him a pariah rather than a friend.
A lovely lady with a great dog. But she didn’t have the skills or experience to teach him how to behave well in public. Two simple strategies would have been a) to walk in a much bigger variety of places. This would help with giving him more mental stimulation to offset the physical limitations. I don’t know about your dogs, but mine always dream more after a new walk. And b) walk him on lead until his recall was more reliable. And yes, I did point her in the direction of a local trainer – I hope she got help. (Note: This happened a few years ago now – but these days there are more opportunities to use private dog walking fields to help exercise your dog if they’re not yet ready to be off lead in public.)
So why didn’t Bolt chase my dogs when we encountered him on our walks? The first reason is that I am always on the lookout for other dogs. I don’t like to be taken by surprise or for my dogs to surprise anyone else. So I’m relaxed but vigilant. That means when I spotted Bolt for the first time, I ensured my dogs were under control. How? I popped them on lead. Easy. Then I watched as he made a speedy bee line towards us. I could see his person had zero control. But I could also see that he was unlikely to be a risk to us, bar the very real threat of knocking us over. Reading body language, human and canine, is a never ending lesson.
Bolt’s approach was fast, but his body was relaxed, fluid. His ears were up and facing our direction, but they were flexible, mobile, not stiff. His tongue was lolling so no tension across the muzzle. He looked at me as well as the dogs, as pleased to interact with a person as a canine. So I greeted him with a smile as I stepped between him and my on lead dogs. We then walked towards his person who was running towards us to try to catch him. After a chat, during which I observed him, I felt happy to let my dog savvy dogs off lead and they all had a lovely play together.
Next time I saw him, which was many months later, I recognised him immediately so left my dogs off lead. But I did keep them close and I didn’t let them run towards him. I practise this with my dogs by recalling them away from other dogs (usually my own to begin with) when they are tiny pups or when they first join my family. Teaching the dog to listen to me, pay attention to me no matter what anyone else is doing is a wonderful foundation skill and one that I work on all the time.
I practise recalling my dogs from friends’ dogs and from anything that might interest them. This gives me the opportunity to provide double rewards. They get rewards from me for coming back and then they get rewarded by being allowed to interact with whatever I’d called them away from. If you are interested in behaviour and training, have a look at Premack’s Principle
When I’m ready to practise with unknown dogs, I specifically take my dog to more dog dense areas. Country parks, local public parks, popular dog walking areas are all places that I usually avoid. But for this particular skill, I need them. I attach a long line to my dog’s harness and we practise recall using the unsuspecting stooges. Start with other dogs who are just walking along, not doing anything exciting. Gradually build to recalling away from more and more exciting dogs, dogs who are playing with other dogs, running or chasing toys. Treat each scenario separately, starting to recall away from each at a large distance, inching closer as your dog’s skills increase. These training walks are super important and allow my dog to make real life decisions, for which she will be rewarded handsomely!
Preventing the panic
It’s just as important not to panic whether you are with the chaser or the chasee. If you see a dog coming towards you and your dog, stay calm. A good strategy is to make your dog boring. This means reducing movement, such as running. The worst thing you can do is throw a toy for your dog as another dog approaches. Movement is exciting and can trigger a chase. So keep your dog close by, just walking calmly. I don’t recommend asking your dog to sit or stay as this can be scary to do in fraught situations.
If you are afraid of spiders, imagine how you’d feel if one was running along the ground towards you and you were told to sit down and not move? You’d want to do the opposite to make yourself feel safe and to increase the distance between you and the spider. Same for dogs. Keep moving, but at a steady pace. If you can, put yourself between your dog and the other dog. This will help shield them and limit unwanted contact. This isn’t always possible but it can be a useful strategy.
If your dog is the chaser, the most important skill to teach is a really reliable recall. Recall is the skill that gives your dog freedom. It’s the skill that allows her to be off lead in public places. Without it, life is more difficult, requires more planning and more effort. And for me, teaching recall to a whistle adds a real boost. It means I can recall my dog from greater distances. The whistle cuts through wind and rain more than my voice. It is universal to all my dogs. And it carries very little emotion. Even if I’m feeling panicky, I can blow the whistle and to my dog I sound as calm as always.
The ultimate skill to teach a chasing dog is to stop still when asked. Whistle stops have long been used by gundog folks. And since I learned it with my first spaniel back in 1992 I’ve taught it to most of my dogs, no matter breed type. The skill is that whatever they are doing, when I blow the whistle, usually one long pip rather than the multiple pips I use for recall, the dog stops and looks at me. Why would they do that? Because the whistle stop means that something exciting is about to happen. It’s not about stopping the dog from doing anything. It’s about heralding new excitement. And that’s why it works so well.
Just as recall shouldn’t mean an end to freedom, an end to fun, both cues should be about providing reward and excitement. A simple example is that when I ask my dog to return to me, her reward is that she is allowed to run off again. Or when I ask my dog to stop moving and look at me, especially if she’s chasing something, it’s because I’m going to throw a toy for her to chase. Replacing an unwanted chase with controlled, appropriate chase is a win-win for the dog. To stop her chasing a deer in return for a boring treat is unlikely to be a successful strategy. The reward has to match, or at least approximate, the reward of the activity you want to interrupt.
Scentwork can be super useful for this. To get your dog’s attention with a cue to ‘Find it’ is to give her the opportunity to search. Harnessing this seeking behaviour can be way more rewarding that a straightforward recall, especially if your dog has a history of ignoring the recall. This is often due to the lead being attached every time, or the fun stopping and her being prevented from doing something she enjoys. ‘Find it’ is always fun, always positive.
Give it a go. Take a scented article on a walk, and when your dog’s not looking, hide it nearby. Then, get your dog’s attention and ask her to ‘Find it’, gesturing towards the area you’d like her to search. Imagine her delight at finding the target scent in this unexpected moment and place. By building a strong history when you ask for your dog’s attention in order to let her know about a wonderful opportunity, you are maximising her response to you. You’re building attention and reliability. And control. Which brings freedom. By asking a dog who loves to track and chase to stop doing in one direction (far into the woods without you) so that you can alert them to a similar opportunity where they are always guaranteed success and that ‘just happens’ to be closer to you is a win-win for you both.
- Prevention is better than cure so if in doubt, put your dog on lead
- Teach a solid recall using a whistle
- The ultimate: teach a whistle stop
- Where possible, use set-ups to simulate common chase scenarios
- Practise, practise, practise
Ella and the Deer
I was prompted to write this post by a recent experience I had when out walking with a friend. We were walking along chatting, taking photos, while our four dogs were having fun running and exploring together. Suddenly, Ella, my JRT, spotted a deer. And she was off! And that’s when I took the photo you see in this post. So what happened next?
Much to my friend’s surprise, I didn’t recall Ella immediately. I’d already missed that opportunity (too busy chatting and snapping!) Now I had to time my recall precisely. So I let Ella run into the field before I gave two pips on the whistle. To my delight (I rarely assume success) Ella stopped in her tracks, turned and ran back to us. As with all training, timing is key. When it comes to chasing, I believe that you have to either call/stop the dog before the chase begins, right when she first sees the prey. Or you have to time the recall so that you issue the cue at the very instant you think the dog is most likely to respond to it. There is no point in calling and calling when you know your dog is going to ignore it – think ‘Fenton!’
Why didn’t I panic?
And what stopped me panicking? If Ella had ignored my request, we were very far from roads. Our dogs running onto a road is a nightmare we all want to avoid. I also knew that she’d never be fast enough to catch the deer. And that even if she did, she could do very little damage. And that I’d put all sorts of training skills in place that I could call on. Had we been walking nearer to roads, or if she didn’t have a great recall, or if we didn’t have a great relationship, Ella would have been on lead. Simple? Yes. But very effective until you and your dog have developed the skills to prevent the chase and prevent the panic.