How Can I Get My Dog to Stop Lunging at Cyclists and Runners?
Q. When we're out on a walk, my dog gets stressed when runners or cyclists go by. He lunges and tries to run after them. What can I do?
A. It’s natural for dogs to want to run after an object that’s moving at high speeds away from them; this is the “chase” part of the predatory sequence. While the desire to chase is manageable in most dogs and is seen only in play, for other dogs, this instinct is so strong that they go after anything that moves, with cyclists and joggers being favorite targets. If your dog has never bitten anyone and is relatively calm when he's out on a walk, there are ways to redirect his chase behavior to appropriate outlets.
It is important to redirect the urge to chase; the consequences of your dog continuing this behavior can be serious, especially if he were ever to get off his leash. While most dogs would stop as soon as they caught up to the runner or cyclist, there are dogs who would nip or who may inflict major harm with deeper bites or a full-on takedown. Keep in mind, too, that the cyclist or runner being chased doesn't know if your dog is friendly or threatening, and may respond by kicking or hurting your dog in self-defense. Putting an end to chase behavior keeps your dog and the people he's sharing the road with safe.
Dogs who chase should always be secured on a sturdy leash set at a certain length and never on a retractable leash or long line. Head halters are beneficial for redirecting your pooch’s attention away from the swiftly moving person. An alternative for flatter-faced dogs is a front-clip harness.
If your dog has a history of biting people or if his behavior seems truly aggressive or predatory, the situation is much more serious. You should consult with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified dog trainer for strategies on handling this situation.
Teach Your Dog to Turn and Sit
The simplest way to deter your dog from chasing is to teach him to turn and sit, where the dog turns his body to face the pet parent and goes into a sit. In a low-distraction environment, call your dog’s name. As soon as he turns to face you, reward him. Then walk forward a few steps, call his name again, and reward him as soon as he turns to face you. Once your dog is readily turning and facing you at the sound of his name, you can begin to ask him to sit. Repeat calling his name and asking him to sit enough times that the dog starts to automatically turn and sit at the sound of his name. Continue to treat him while he stays in a sit until you give a release word. Practice the turn and sit in various environments — inside, in the backyard, in the front yard, when getting out of the car — so that it’s a readily accessible behavior.
The next step is to teach your dog to turn and sit when he sees a runner or cyclist. Recruit family members or friends to help you in this process. With your dog on leash as described earlier, begin by having your helper ride or jog slowly by, far away from your dog, such as across the street. As soon as your dog sees the person jogging or biking, cue him to turn toward you and sit; treat him while he remains sitting.
Keep in mind that when your dog is around a distraction, you will need to treat more often while he remains in the sit, possibly every couple of seconds to begin with. If he can’t calm down enough to focus on you, increase the distance between you and the person jogging or biking or have that person slow down.
As long as your dog remains relaxed, have the runner or cyclist alternate between moving closer and increasing speed, being sure to change only one variable at a time. Once your pet remains relaxed and consistently turns and sits when he sees the person running or riding, you can begin to practice in various locations and with more people. Your dog should begin to generalize the idea that a runner or cyclist is his cue to turn and face you and go into a relaxed sit until released.
Once your dog is readily responding to the turn and sit cue during practice sessions with friends and family, start to practice in real-life situations. Find a place frequented by cyclists and runners and pick an area where you can stand at a distance from the path or road — maybe 20 or so feet away from the path to begin with. As soon as you see a runner or cyclist in the distance, ask your dog to turn and sit and continue to treat him while he remains sitting. If your dog reacts by lunging at the passing cyclist or runner, either increase your distance from the path or go back to the more controlled practice sessions.
If your dog remains relaxed, gradually move closer to the path or road until you are able to walk next to the runners and cyclists. Continue to ask for the turn and sit when your dog sees someone approaching and reward him with a treat or short round of play once the runner or cyclist has passed.