How do I stop my dog lunging at traffic?

Dog lunging towards car

(Q) I have awful trouble walking my dog because she lunges and barks at traffic, and she almost has me off my feet. She especially does this with lorries and buses. 

(A) Jackie Drakeford says: First you need to restore control for your own safety, and I recommend getting a harness that has the lead attachment on the chest. Walk your dog from a lead on her collar, but have a second lead on the harness. It's a lot easier than it sounds to work with two leads, and the beauty of this arrangement is that when your dog lunges, the chest fastening means that as the harness lead comes into play, it turns her towards you.

Next you need to look at your dog's motivation. Most dogs who do this are trying to scare the traffic away, because there is a big element of fear involved. Not only is there the size to consider, but the noise, vibration, and the diesel fumes at dog height make these vehicles a very unpleasant experience for the dog as they go by. And of course the traffic does go away, so your dog thinks her actions have succeeded, which is rewarding her.

Her imagined success brings with it a big rush of excitement hormones, which are highly addictive, and so prompt her to repeat this behaviour for the thrill of it. Thrill and fear are very closely linked in the mind. If your dog is a herding breed, then she is also genetically programmed to dive at moving things and get them moving faster, so there is yet another another huge reward in this.

Every dog has a reaction distance. Right now, you are too close to the traffic, so find places where you can both observe it while being far enough away that your dog doesn't feel the need to react. Sit together watching the traffic going by, while rewarding calm behaviour with a few treats, a toy or a game. If your dog reacts, you are still too close. Go to places where large vehicles are parked, and walk by at a sufficient distance that your dog doesn't react, and reward as before. Don't rush this, but be happy with small victories, and keep lessons very short — five minutes is ample to begin with. These are training sessions, and she will still need to be walked, but away from traffic so she can enjoy a calm time out exercising.

At home, concentrate on giving your dog an occupation that makes her think, such as puzzle toys, stuffed Kongs, and scattering some of her food about the garden for her to search out. This will satisfy the reward centres in her brain to replace the high she gets from attacking traffic.

Using these methods together, you will gradually desensitise her to traffic, but it will take time and you must go at her pace. Your aim is to stop the lesson before she reacts rather than pushing her to the point when she does.

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