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Traffic chasing and the many faces of fear

We tend to picture a fearful dog with their tail tucked low, cowering or trembling and looking visibly scared. These assumptions make it easy to miss fear when it’s displayed in different ways.

The dog who is barking and lunging and behaving ‘aggressively’ or the dog who is leaping around all over the place, aren’t typically seen as being ‘fearful’ but they are just as likely to be experiencing fear as the dog who cowers on the floor.

Think of how people behave when they’re scared of something, some people will tremble and try to hide, run away or go very quiet, while other people might hide their fear by becoming much louder and masking it with arrogance, aggression or an air of confidence.

Dogs are no different. How dogs respond to fear may depend on past experiences but also on their personality traits, just because a dog may appear confident to us, doesn’t necessarily mean they are.

Dogs may learn to confidently display behaviours, just like people. If someone learns that it’s effective to mask their fears and anxieties with bravado and confidence, they will fall back onto this approach when faced with a difficult situation. Dogs can learn to use displays of aggression or confident body language when feeling fearful, because often these behaviours are most effective at scaring off whatever is worrying them. If the dog is scared of people approaching, when they start barking and lunging and looking ‘aggressive’, people are very unlikely to continue to approach, making the display very effective.

For dogs who are scared of traffic, it can easily be misinterpreted as excitement or breed instincts. It can also be seen as bad behaviour and completely misread by us humans. There are a few key behaviours which can indicate a fear around traffic…

Barking, lunging and chasing

This can appear a very confident display, it can even look as though the dog is enjoying themselves, particularly when they’re a herding breed. Border collie owners will often be told they are prone to chasing traffic and it’s because they are bred to stalk and herd moving things, while this may be the case for some collies, there will be many others who are feeling incredibly fearful of traffic.

Barking, lunging and chasing behaviours quickly become reinforced because to the dog, the behaviour works … lunge at the car = car continues to move away.

It won’t take many repetitions for this to appear highly successful.

For many dogs who display this behaviour, it will be a progression from other signs, as a small puppy they may have shied away from traffic or been hesitant to walk along roads, but if they continue to be exposed to the scary traffic then alternative behaviours develop and they soon learn to bark and lunge at traffic in an attempt to gain distance from the cars.

There may be some conflict in these dogs, they may be feeling fearful of traffic but they also feel a rush of adrenaline and find the chasing behaviour intrinsically motivating.

Whether the dog is feeling fearful or conflicted, it’s important to understand they aren’t having a good time when displaying these behaviours. They’re very unlikely to be using cars as an outlet for their natural herding instincts, and far more likely to be fearful or conflicted. These dogs need to gain confidence around traffic and learn to feel calmer and more in control.

Cowering and shying away

When a dog is cowering near roads or trying to get away, it’s much easier to see their fears and understand they’re uncomfortable near roads. In some dogs it will be relatively subtle, perhaps pulling their ears back, walking more stiffly or looking around a lot. For other dogs it will be very obvious, perhaps dropping to the floor as cars pass or crawling along past cars.

Refusing to walk near roads

Similar to shying away, some dogs will hesitate to approach roads or try to avoid paths which lead to roads with traffic.

They may seem to cope better on unfamiliar roads, but when faced with known areas they start to panic when approaching roads with more traffic.

This can be missed in some dogs though, if your dog is wary of leaving the house or seems to take a dislike to certain parts of their walk, it isn’t always our first thought that they might be worried by traffic.

Some dogs will seem confident along roads for a long time before their fear begins or escalates, perhaps they get spooked by a loud lorry or motorbike, or something unpleasant happens along the road like stepping on something painful. These events can trigger a more sudden fear or be the beginning of a growing fear, so even for dogs who have always seemed happy around traffic, it's always possible for fear to develop.

If a dog begins to show hesitation about leaving the house or walking along certain roads, it’s worth considering what might be the cause and whether traffic is contributing to their hesitations.

Pulling on the lead near roads

Another sign which can be so easily missed is when a dog is pulling on the lead. Often we think dogs pull because they’re impatient and they don’t want to walk at our slow speed, they’d rather be free to explore and move at their own pace. What we don’t often consider is whether they are pulling because they want to get away from something or because they’re worried and the flight instinct is taking over.

Pulling on the lead can look like a badly behaved dog who hasn’t been taught any different, but if you look at the context and the body language, you may start to realise there’s much more to it.

If you have a dog who pulls more along roads or tries to go down any side street to get away from a busy road it can indicate they’re feeling fearful. You may also see signs of fear, such as eyes wide and glancing around, tense body, ears pulled back, or agitated behaviour when you stand still to cross the road.

If a fear of traffic is contributing to challenging behaviour on the lead, no amount of lead training alone will improve the behaviour, and using harsh methods like jerking the lead or attaching various bits of equipment will only increase their fear even if it appears to reduce their pulling.

What to do about it

No matter how your dog displays their fear of traffic, the key to building their confidence and improving their behaviour is to give them choice and distance.

Walking around traffic tends to restrict our dogs’ choices, they’re on a lead and they can’t move away, often the pavements mean they are close to the traffic passing too. Having a lack of choice and being forced close to the scary thing means the fear is reinforced quickly and repeatedly, traffic-fearful dogs rarely get better from walking along roads more often, usually they get worse.

Depending on the severity of their fear, you need to start at a big distance from traffic. For some dogs that will be the other side of a field, for others it will just need to be wide footpath. It’s important your dog is relaxed and taking food treats, if they can’t eat and they’re showing signs of fear then you’re too close to the traffic.

From an appropriate distance, you can work on letting your dog observe and hear the traffic, while you add exciting rewards or play some fun games. Pairing the sight and sound of traffic with good things will help them feel more confident and positive. Over time, you can move closer to the traffic while always making sure your dog remains relaxed and calm.

Alongside this, you can work on good lead manners away from traffic so your dog is learning to enjoy walking on a loose lead and practicing all the skills they need around traffic (e.g. taking food treats, focusing on you when asked). A tight lead will increase your dog stress levels, so it’s important to teach good loose lead walking away from traffic so your dog is able to walk without the added tension from pulling on the lead. If your dog is able to walk on a loose lead but starts to pull when near traffic then you have a clear sign they’re uncomfortable.

Traffic can be an overwhelming and constant stress for many dogs, especially if walking along roads is part of their daily routine, so in order to build their confidence, you need to avoid the fear-inducing situations. This means not walking around traffic until your dog is ready for it.

This is where a lot of people become stuck, it can be near impossible at times to avoid traffic, but it’s without doubt absolutely key if you want to improve the behaviour. Every time your dog feels fearful around traffic, it’s reinforced further and it can undo any progress you’ve started to make.

Taking a break from traffic can be a hugely beneficial first step, a week or two with no traffic training and no walking along roads will go a long way to helping your dog relax.

Even when you’re working on traffic fears and building confidence, it’s essential to have regular days where you avoid roads completely and take a break from the training. Each dog will be different, some may need one day of traffic training followed by two days without, others may cope with a few days in a row along roads and then one day off. You need to get to know your dog and work out the best balance for them, but if in doubt, do less rather than more.

Ask for help

Like all fears and phobias, it can be complicated and easily set-back, it may only take one scary motorbike or a car making a weird noise and your dog is more fearful again, some dogs will never learn to cope with regular walks along roads and will always need breaks, while others can feel safer very quickly just from learning to look to their owner for more support around traffic.

Working with an experienced trainer is highly beneficial for any dog who is showing concerning behaviours around traffic, whether they’re just shying away slightly or they’re lunging uncontrollably at every car, having the support of someone who understands the behaviour is invaluable.

When looking for a trainer to help you, make sure you choose someone who understands dog behaviour and the underlying causes of traffic issues.

Steer clear of anyone who wants to ‘correct’ your dog, put a choke chain, prong collar or slip lead on them, and anyone who wants to jerk the lead or ‘put your dog in its place’.

These methods disregard the underlying fears behind the behaviour and will only create even more fear and conflict for your dog, their behaviour may appear to improve but most likely your dog will just be so scared and confused he will shut down and effectively give up.

Find a trainer who wants to build you dogs confidence, understands the importance of choice and space when working with fears, and who can teach your dog to rely on you for support

Written by Naomi White

Join the Adolescent Dogs Online Academy and watch the Traffic Chasing Webinar.

Within this webinar, we show you week by week how we worked through traffic chasing with a fearful dog. We show you progress each week and which training methods we used. You'll also find step by step video tutorials for each training method so that you can replicate the training with your own dog. Live trainer support is available daily and weekly Live Q&A's with our Head Behaviourist.

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