Hi Dr. Yin,
My female 18 mos old ACD is getting better and better about responding to my commands when off leash. The biggest problem is her chasing of bikes (and sometimes runners). I think they startle her and then move so fast that she goes immediately into prey mode. How can I learn to teach her to ignore them? or at least stop and wait for my command when something so exciting is happening.
Gwyn from Marin
Gwyn, while many dogs chase bikes and runners (see article on Why Runners Steer Clear of Dogs), it's definitely no surprise to see an Australian Cattle Dog performing this chase-type behavior. They have a tendency to chase and nip the “heels” of things running by. They can do this in play or as a defensive startle or fear response. In any case, you're right that the behavior is not OK. The plan for fixing this behavior is two-pronged.
Start With the Dog On Leash at All Times
First, your dog should never be off leash in public until you can get fantastic attention on you and a fantastic 'come when called' when on a regular leash first and then when on a long 15-20 foot leash. Every time you call her or ask her to focus on you and she blows you off, she's learning that your words are unimportant. So you'll first have to work with her on leash so you can always get her attention and keep her from ignoring you until you can get good focus, no matter how distracting the situation. Then, you can work with her on a longer leash to simulate off-leash situations before you let her completely off-leash. I know it sounds like a drag, but it's the only way you can get her to be 100% reliable and avoid risk of liability. One nip at a jogger or dog-induced bike crash and your home owners insurance might be maxed out! Plus, if you work on it full-bore, you can have the problem solved pretty quickly.
Train Her That Playing With You Overrides Barking at Runners and Bikes
Part one is to first get her to focus on you (on leash) no matter how high the distractions. Generally, I teach owners to train their dogs that heeling in different directions and playing sit games is really fun – so fun that the dog gives their undivided attention, first, in quiet areas and then with distractions. You can also just have her perform tricks when these distractions go by. Again, first get her to perform them in rapid succession without distractions, then later with distractions. That means you have to be ready for bikes and get her focused on you before the bike or runner gets close. Once you're able to get her attention and keep it focused on you, then your 'come when called' will likely be more effective.
Add The Come When Called
The best way to get your dog to come when called is to send her on a chase. Put her on a leash in the house. Say, her name plus 'come' and run backwards 5-10 steps fast enough so she runs to catch up. Give her a treat as soon as she catches up, follow up with a few more treats for sitting so she learns to remain focused on you. Be sure to say her name and 'come' just one time right before you run backwards and then give the treat and praise or petting if she indicates with body language that she likes praise and petting.
Next, add some speed by repeating step 1 but turning around and running away from her rather than facing her and running backwards. Stop and face her before she gets to you so she knows what she's supposed to do. Give her the treat when she catches up. She should charge after you in a full run. When she reliably does this in the house with distractions, you can try her off leash in the house and then on leash outside. When she's good on a regular length lead you can go to the next step.
Now you can go to a leash that's 15 to 20 or more feet long. Let your dog walk around on the lengthy lead. Then, making sure it's not tangled, call her and run in the opposite direction at full speed. Your movement will hopefully incite her to chase you at a full run. Before she catches up, turn around to face her and lure her into a sit (if needed) in front of you and then give her treats and lots of praise so she's sure she made the right choice. Then as a second reward, let her wander. Literally practice this 20x per walk at the park.
When she comes immediately 100% of the times on long leash, add in distractions. Start with easy ones at first such as stationary objects. Then graduate to more engaging ones such as moving toys or other dogs on leash. In the case of doggie distractions, make sure the other dog can't run alongside or tackle your dog as she's trying to make her way to you. As usual, when she reaches you and sits, give her a treat and praise plus sometimes give her the opportunity to play with the other dog or go back and do what she was doing before. That way she learns that coming when called never means missing an opportunity for something better.
Putting it Together
So how do we know how to use this all? Once her attention and recall is 100%—meaning she comes running full throttle to you immediately when you call the first time—you can have her off leash. Call her before the biker or jogger gets too close. Call before she has a chance to react to them. Then once she's near you, reward her for focusing on you until the runner or bicyclist goes by. If you can set the situation up so that you will see many bicyclers and joggers and you're able to reward the good behavior and prevent her from barking and lunging at these people, you'll be able to change the behavior quickly.