This article was also published in Speaking of Dogs June 2014 Newsletter:
We had long winter months where most people preferred to stay indoors, the parks were empty, and you could have long walks with your dog in the city and barely see anyone. The warm weather arrived pretty suddenly and has now caught some of us dog owners by surprise. All of a sudden skateboarders are passing us left and right, mountain bikers dive out of the bush right in front of our dogs’ noses, joggers have multiplied by the hundreds, and just as you are about to put that poop bag in the garbage, a cyclist passes you and your dog at the speed of light and at a distance of an inch.
The re-appearance of fast moving objects makes sense to us humans, but not to our dogs who haven’t seen any of these things at such density for so many months. And the canine reaction is often not what we humans appreciate: barking, lunging, and chasing the object.
Why do dogs become reactive toward fast moving objects? There can be various reasons. They can become afraid, and by barking and lunging they are trying to hunt the scary object away. Alternately, canine predatory behaviours can kick in: a lot of breeds are, after all, genetically hardwired to chase anything that moves, from herding breeds to sight hounds. But whatever the initial reason is, the frustration of the restraint of the leash with constant exposure to rapidly moving objects can easily push a dog to real aggression. If a dog in this state of mind gets loose and chases the moving object down, the result can be dangerous. Is there then a way to train a dog out of it?
As frustrating as it is, management has a huge part to play: the city hunter-type of dog cannot be allowed to indulge in these behaviours off-leash, not only because of the dangers but because every time the dog gets to chase, that behaviour becomes stronger. This happens and generalizes very fast! A leash or longer line or fence has to be there as a safety barrier at all times, even when we are training, to prevent the dog from escalating into the chase in case our training fails.
But what can we do training wise? It is time to start stalking fast moving objects at a safe distance. We need to teach the dog that something heavenly will happen to them every time they see any fast moving object and also train them with control tools. Counter-conditioning is a technique that works for any trigger. Here is Pat Miller’s protocol for dog reactivity. Just substitute the dog with any other trigger that you are working with.
The “Look at That” game from Leslie McDevitt’s excellent book Control Unleashed is a similar and a fantastic tool. Here you will actually start marking the moment the dog calmly looks at the trigger and then reward them with a treat. Whichever protocol you use, when we play our cards right, the fast moving objects actually become environmental cues for the dog to orient back to us.
In addition to changing the dog’s emotional association toward the triggers, serious recall training is a must (see the Reliable Recall series in Casey Lomonacos’ article library), so that gradually the dog can start earning some more off-leash time again. Here we must be very careful though and always put everyone’s safety first. Off-leash time can only happen in safe places and where its legally permitted.
But then we have the unexpected situations where the thing on wheels appears out of nowhere and surprises not only the dog but us as well. Common courtesy by people operating the object on wheels is sometimes lacking. Whenever you encounter a courteous cyclist or roller blader, do not hesitate to give them some positive feedback and tell them how much you appreciate their consideration.
Also, if you see a fast moving object approaching you at full speed and you are cornered and don’t have anywhere to go, politely but sternly asking them to slow down or even stop is a good option. Being labelled as a crazy dog person sounds completely acceptable to me if that prevents your dog from reacting!