Barking at cars is something many dog guardians find themselves needing to deal with. Cars are quick moving and large and, when walking a dog on the pavement at the roadside, very close, so it is no wonder that they are something which bothers a lot of dogs. Herding breeds can be particularly prone to having issues with cars, as they are very sight-driven and quick to react to movement. While any situation in which a dog barks at something can be embarrassing for the guardian holding the other end of the lead, barking at cars can also lead to potential danger. If the dog moves suddenly towards the car when barking, they could put themselves – and possibly their guardian as well – in the path of serious harm.
To stop the habit of barking at cars requires a process of desensitisation to the movement. It is not often a quick process but, done right and with patience, it is very effective. As with any behaviour that becomes a habit, it is important to stop the dog being able to practice that habit as much as possible. This means not walking alongside roads if it is possible to avoid them. Walk in quiet places, away from roads. If no walks near home can avoid cars but some nearby exist that you can drive to, it is a worthwhile investment of time to do so.
To work on desensitising to cars, we need to find a space where the dog can see cars, but not close enough that they feel the need to bark at them. This may be a driveway at home or a car park at a supermarket for example. With careful observation of the dog and the signs they show of increased arousal before they reach the point of barking at cars, we can work out their threshold. This is important, as we need to start working with the dog before they reach this point.
Once threshold has been calculated and we have found a comfortable spot from which cars can be observed, we can start using a technique called ‘Look at That’. This is a handy method for teaching a dog to look at potential triggers from a safe distance without reacting to them. Every time the dog looks at a car calmly and back to the handler, they receive a reward. This can be food, attention, a favourite toy. The dog decides the reward that works for them.
Desensitisation comes in the form of slowly moving closer to the cars. All the time the dog is looking calmly at the cars and happy to take their reward we can move closer, a step at a time. If at any point the dog becomes tense and unable to pay attention to the handler or starts barking at cars passing by, stop and increase the distance again until they can relax.
Barking at cars is a simple issue to fix, but requires excellent observation, empathy, and patience. With perseverance, we can have our dog happy to walk along pavements without worrying about cars at all.
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