It’s a problem most dog owners face at one time or another: their loving, loyal companion likes to harass other animals, objects, and even people. What may have been harmless fun when they were puppies can become dangerous, out-of-control behavior when they’re full-grown. My Labrador Chico, for example, liked to “play” with my chickens when he was a little puppy. At first it was cute – after all, the birds were bigger than him and could just walk away – but when he suddenly wanted to “play” again after he was seventy-five pounds and almost stronger than me, it wasn’t so cute anymore.
Chasing and barking is a natural dog behavior, but great harm can come to not only your or your neighbors’ animals, but also to your dog as a result. Injuries or illness can occur from contact with another animal, the dog may chase too far and get lost, or a very upset neighbor can bring your dog to harm, either with thrown rocks, a gun, or with poison. An uncontrolled dog that gets off your property is also a liability – owners are legally obligated in most places to keep their dog under control and away from roadways and other people’s properties. A bad pattern of chasing or killing behavior can impound your dog and leave you with heavy fines. Luckily, most dogs can learn to reverse these bad behaviors.
Stalking & Chasing
Stalking, chasing, and even killing other animals is a very common and problematic behavior in dogs on the homestead, and it can manifest itself in any breed. This instinctive behavior is often shown not just livestock, but also to squirrels, cars, and even children. Dogs that stalk and chase tend to get fixated, sometimes going silent first, before erupting into the chase. It may seem playful, even harmless, at first, but the dog is expressing hunting behavior, and a chase may end up being a kill.
Some dogs may also chase out of fear or territorial aggression. My own dog Chico once chased (more like charged) a horse and rider passing by during a walk – he’d never seen a horse before, and I think he was protecting me (and himself) from the huge “monster.” This is different from the “hunt and kill” chase that he liked to do with my chickens.
This is another common behavior problem and can be a sign of fear, frustration, or just to let out pent-up energy. Like chasing, it can become harmful, leading to stressed livestock and making it difficult to get work done.
To start reversing the habit of chasing or barking, or preventing the behavior in the first place, owners should take stock of their situation and identify the problem. From this starting point, try to change the dog’s schedule and environment to help make it more conducive to training:
- Remove fear/anxiety triggers (gun shots, large animals, etc.) – Helps promote relaxation and reduces tension and anxiety.
- Exercise – Prevents restlessness and boredom and provides an outlet for the dog’s excessive energy.
- Play – A positive reward that drains energy and strengthens the human-dog bond.
- Work – Provides mental and physical stimulation and also strengthens the human-dog bond. Jobs include toting water in a backpack, herding livestock and retrieving tools.
- Socialization – Start introducing new experiences at a very young age, if possible, and not only on the homestead, but also in many different situations to build confidence and trust.
No matter what training method and tools you choose to use, it’s easiest to work with a dog that’s calm. If your dog is showing excitement before a training session, consider draining their energy first, either with a game of fetch or a long walk. I’ve been playing fetch with my exuberant yellow lab with a Frisbee lately before every session and have found that a tired dog is much more likely to focus – especially after they’ve worked up an appetite and you have the treats in your hand!
It’s important to use a lead and secure collar or harness at first. It gives you more control, and more importantly, it protects your animals. It’s also important to keep your dog calm. Early on, I made the mistake of calling and trying to correct Chico after he was already going for the chase. I later found out that it’s much easier to correct his behavior before he gets worked up.
Following are some popular training methods used to curb disruptive behaviors. While they work differently, when used properly they can help the owner train their dog to master a few vital skills, including focusing on the owner, coming when called and learning to remain calm around other animals.
- Head-halter – A relatively new tool for dogs, it works just like a horse halter: it fits over the head, with a strap over the muzzle, and attaches to a lead under the chin. When the dog pulls, the pressure redirects, forcing them to turn their head towards you. It’s widely considered to be a useful and humane tool, as long as it fits and is used correctly.
- Check-chain – Also called a “choke chain.” A useful tool when used properly, but can be dangerous if not. The chain tightens around the dog’s neck when they pull, applying even pressure and mimicking a bite. Ask for a demonstration or watch a video on proper check-chain use before trying.
- E-collar – A controversial tool, the electric collar delivers a vibration or a shock at different levels when the owner presses a button on the remote. Can be dangerous – and inhumane – if used incorrectly. In some circumstances, especially if the dog is putting itself or others in great danger, professional dog trainers will recommend it. Professional guidance is strongly recommended before using the e-collar.
- Clicker – A useful training tool that reinforces a desired behavior. Very easy to use and can help teach even very complicated tasks.
There is no perfect way to train every dog for every situation. After all, dogs and their owners are individuals, and what training methods work great for one dog may be totally ineffective for another. No matter what, be sure that you know how to use your training tools and techniques appropriately. When in doubt, or if you need some guidance, enlist the help of a reputable dog trainer. Consulting with a professional can go a long way in making the training process more effective and progress more smoothly.
Stopping unwanted behavior takes a lot of time, energy and patience – dogs do not change overnight – but in the vast majority of cases, it is possible to train your dog to get along with other animals. My own Labrador may still chase the chickens every now and then, but after three months of work, I’m finally seeing glimpses of the sort of behavior I want, and it helps encourage me to work through the stumbling blocks along the way. The result – a happy, harmonious homestead – is more than worth the effort.