Why Do Dogs Chase Cars?

From a human’s perspective, a dog’s addiction to chasing cars often seems incomprehensible. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but the last time I felt an uncontrollable urge to pursue a moving object was never!

Why do dogs want to chase cars when the risk of injury is so high?

Dogs chase cars due to a misdirected predatory chase instinct which results in a dopamine release when chasing an object. For example, a dog who chases cars is rewarded with the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters.

Most owners recognize the inherent risk of their dogs chasing cars but have no idea how to stop their dog’s dangerous behavior.

So it is necessary to understand why dogs chase cars before designing a training strategy to stop them from chasing cars.

Can Canine Ethology Explain Why Dogs Like Chasing Cars and Biting Tires?

Canine ethology (also known as the study of dog behavior) currently has three theories about why dogs engage in chasing behaviors.

Chasing activities and behaviors include chasing cars, balls, frisbees, skateboarders, livestock, small animals, and children.

The three theories are:

  1. Instinct theory
  2. Drive theory of learning
  3. Combined Drive and Instinct theory

What Does Instinct Theory Say About Car Chasing Dogs?

Instinct theory proposes that all living beings display species-specific behavior unrelated to cognitive processes associated with learning and is linked to the survival of the individual and the species.

For example, a mother dog who defends her puppies from danger acts instinctually.

According to the instinct theory, a dog’s chasing behavior is an impulsive behavior that forms part of the hunting sequence needed to capture and kill prey (i.e., food sources).

Based on this theory, a dog may be ruled by its chase instinct and has no choice but to chase any moving object, including cars.

Does Drive Theory Explain Why Dogs Chase Cars?

The second theory is the drive theory. Drive theory assumes that all animals, including dogs, have basic drives or motivators linked to biological needs necessary for survival, e.g., hunger, thirst, temperature regulation, etc.

Once a drive is triggered, the dog will engage in voluntary behaviors to appease the biological need. Dogs adapt their behaviors in response to their experiences and thus learn how to optimize their behavior to achieve an end goal of need fulfillment.

According to this theory, dogs will engage in predatory chase and hunting behaviors (drive) when they experience hunger (biological need). Once the dog catches and eats its prey, the hunting drive is reduced, and the biological need is fulfilled.

Drive theory divides the various drives into two types: primary drives and acquired drives. Primary drives are directly linked to fulfilling the biological need, whereas acquired drives are motivators that have been linked to the primary drives through association.

In fulfilling the primary drive of hunger appeasement, the dogs receive a neurochemical reward of “feel-good” hormones during the chase aspect of hunting.

The dog learns to associate chasing (an acquired drive) with the fulfillment of the primary hunting drive and begins to display chasing behaviors regardless of whether the object they are pursuing is a potential food source.

These dogs are essentially chasing an endorphin high and not a means to assuage their hunger.

Proposing A New Theory To Explain Why Dogs Chase Cars

In recent years, dog behaviorists have discarded the drive and instinct theories in favor of a third theory to explain why dogs chase cars. The third theory is a combination of the first two theories.

The drive theory explains why dogs can become addicted to chasing cars but does not explain what acted as an initial trigger for a domestic dog’s chasing behavior.

Unlike wild animals, most pet dogs do not have to hunt for their dinner, removing the biological need (for example, hunger) associated with the primary hunting drive.

If dogs never engaged in hunting activities, they would never have experienced the endorphin high of chasing and thus never developed the habit of chasing cars.

However, instinct theory explains why dogs first start chasing an object. For example, chasing is an impulsive action triggered by moving objects and is not dependent on prior learning or life experiences.

In summary, the current theories why dogs engage in non-goal directed, predatory chase behaviors such as chasing chase cars are:

  1. An instinctive chasing behavior is triggered when a dog sees a moving object, such as a car, skateboarder, small animal, running livestock, ball, Frisbee, etc.
  2. The strength of the predatory chase instinct varies between individual dogs and dog breeds.
  3. The dog receives an endorphin rush during the car chase. As a result, the chasing behavior becomes intrinsically rewarding. The dog is motivated to repeat the behavior regardless of whether they are rewarded by catching or eating the object of their chase.
  4. The dog develops an acquired “chase drive” that is strengthened by the dog’s experiences during the chase.
  5. The more repetitions and the greater the reward, the more entrenched the dog’s car chasing behavior becomes.

Is There A Positive Side To Dogs Chasing Cars?

After reading this article, you may be tempted to view a dog’s natural chase instinct and hunting drive as an unredeemable negative trait.

While there is no positive side to dogs chasing cars, there is a positive element to a dog’s chasing and hunting behaviors.

For thousands of years, people have bred dogs to perform jobs that rely on the dog’s natural hunting instinct. A dog’s hunting drive or instinct consists of a sequence of voluntary behaviors which humans can use for their benefit:

Hunting BehaviourHuman Benefit
Scenting potential prey or item of interestScent detection dogs, e.g., drug detection dogs, truffle hunters, cancer detection.
TrackingDogs trained in search and rescue.
Stalking and chasingHerding livestock.
Grabbing the preyDogs trained in non-lethal target apprehension, e.g., police dogs.
KillingRat catching, etc.

Which Dog Breeds Are Prone To Chasing Cars?

Any dog, regardless of breed, can learn to chase cars. However, the following dog breeds have been actively selected for their high chase drive and thus have a greater propensity for car chasing than other dog breeds.

  1. Herding breeds, such as Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Australian Cattle Dogs.
  2. Sight Hounds, such as Whippets, Greyhounds, and Salukis.
  3. Terriers and other hunting dogs, such as Jack Russell Terriers, Airedale Terriers, and Cairn Terriers.
  4. Spitz Dogs, such as Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and Finnish Lapphund.

Do Dogs Chase Cars For Different Reasons?

Not all dogs who chase cars do so for the “thrill of the chase.”

Some dog owners (who, in my opinion, should never own another dog) may illegally abandon their dogs in rural areas in the expectation that the dog can “live off the land,” enjoy the “farm life,” and hunt for its food.

These domestic dogs are pets and have not developed the skills necessary to survive in the wild. In reality, these abandoned dogs are more likely to be shot by a farmer, starve, freeze to death, or be killed by a passing car.

The bewildered, frightened dogs will often pursue passing cars, as that was the last place they saw their owner. The dog is not being naughty but is confused, scared, and desperately searching for help.

How to Stop Your Dog from Running After Cars and Other Vehicles

This video is excellent and gives step by step training advice to help you train your dog out of this risky and dangerous behavior:

 

Conclusion

Contrary to how it may appear, dogs don’t chase cars to give their owners grey hairs!

Chasing is a normal part of dog behavior but is dangerous and unwanted when dogs start to chase cars.

The chase instinct is the initial trigger for dogs to start chasing cars.

However, the dog’s chasing behavior develops into an acquired chase drive when the dog experiences an endorphin rush while chasing the car.

The dog becomes addicted to the “feel-good” hormones and, like an addict, repeats the behavior to experience the endorphin high.

With time and patience, dogs can be taught to stop chasing cars.

References

https://dpca.org/breeded/definition-of-drives/
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/edpsy/chapter/instinct-drive-and-arousal-theory/
https://www.nfus.org.uk/userfiles/images/Campaigns/Control%20Your%20Dog/McBride%20and%20Williams%202019%20Why%20do%20dogs%20chase%20livestock.pdf
https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-channel-your-dogs-predatory-instincts-on-walks/
https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/working-dogs-jobs-dogs-can/

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