Why do collies chase cars?

border collie chasing cars

Why do collies chase cars and other vehicles?  Having worked with many border collie car chasers over the last few years, it’s my belief that this behaviour is most often initiated by fear and frustration.  Border collies that chase vehicles often are taken too near to busy roads when they are puppies and are terrified by the traffic. They are usually on a lead (because they are near a road) and their fight or flight instinct kicks in. They can’t “flight” due to the lead so the “fight” behaviour is initiated instead. If you can’t get away from something then you have to make yourself loud and scary to chase it away instead. They do this a few times and the vehicles pass by (because they were going past anyway) but the dog believes that their behaviour was successful in chasing away the loud scary monster, and they therefore do it the next time, and the next and so on. So every time you walk your dog next to a road, the behaviour is reinforced further every time a car passes.

Think to when collies nip sheep – it’s usually caused by lack of confidence (fear) with sheep. The collie feels threatened so he tries to control the situation using his teeth.

Over time, as the car chasing behaviour is further reinforced by walking next to roads, the collie’s confidence starts to grow and they start to enjoy it a little more, and the collie “must control movement” instinct starts to kick in.  This causes collie to become even more obsessed, but they are never able to actually control the movement due to being on a lead and also because cars don’t behave like sheep! So we have a behaviour initiated by fear, which causes frustration and is maintained by the desire to control movement.

The following video shows Crumbie, a dog that I fostered, who was a very strong, determind car chaser.  His reactions to vehicles looked very aggressive and he appeared to quite enjoy the chasing.  However, given the opportunity to approach busy roads from a distance, he was very fearful, and would try and pull away, showing that fear was still the over-riding emotion behind his lunging and spinning behaviour.  Behaviourists always ask lots of in-depth questions about a dog’s history, day to day life and responses to a wide range of other situations, so we are able to determine the emotion behind a behaviour.  Many trainers, especially trainers who don’t specialise in the border collies, don’t have the time to ask the same sorts of questions, which is why they sometimes don’t recognise the range of emotions that the dog is feeling, often treating only the behaviour, rather than the emotion causing the behaivour.  If the emotion isn’t addressed, then the problem behaviour, or other unwanted behaviours, may re-appear further down the line.

Other examples that make me believe that fear initiates the behaviour in most traffic chasers include:

  • Dogs that only react to motorcycles – motorcycles typically are very loud, fast machines that appear quickly and can easily alarm a dog (they alarm me).  If it was nothing to do with the sound, these dogs would also chase cyclists but some don’t.
  • Similarly, dogs that react only to lorries, tractors, buses and vans.  These are all bigger and potentially more scary than other types of traffic, so it’s clearly not just the movement with these dogs – there is somethign more going on.
  • Some dogs that are traffic chasers are very reluctant to cross roads and would prefer to move away rather than towards roads given the choice.  Crumbie showed clear signs of fear when approaching busy roads and often stopped and tried to pull back the other way.
  • Many owners report that the first time their dog came into contact with traffic, they were terrified and tried to pull away, and this is my observation with my own dogs who were potential traffic chasers.  One of my dogs would only try to chase trains after, many years ago, I mistakenly thought that taking him to a train platform to “get him used to” trains was the right thing to do to “socialise” him.  A loud steam train came through and he was terrified.
  • Some collies don’t bark and lunge at traffic, but instead cower away towards the furthest edge of the pavement or verge in a clear attempt to get away.

Obviously, there are always exceptions.  For instance, dogs that are left in gardens unattended may start to chase passing traffic from the safety of the garden boundary through being bored and having nothing else to do, in the same way that dogs may chase birds that fly over the garden, or squirrels, or fence run with other dogs.  Alternatively, these dogs could be practising territorial behaviour, becoming frustrated that approaching vehicles are invading “their” territory, and using distance increasing behaviour in an attempt to get them to leave.  This behaviour is then reinforced, because most cars that are passing, carry on past, so the collie believes that their behaviour was successful.  As with the fear reaction, collies then start to become more confident and enjoy the chase, which is when the herding instinct also starts to come into play.  Some dogs that are walked in parks might be attracted to the fast movement of traffic on the edges of the park, and be drawn to trying to control movement with no fear involved.  However, out of all the many dogs I have seen that chase traffic intensively enough for their owners to seek help from a behaviourist, I have yet to meet one that I believe is reacting due to the herding instinct alone and where the behaviour was not initiated by fear.

Because fear is usually the main emotion behind the behaviour, at least to start with, then any good behaviourist would advise NOT walking your dog by roads and telling them off for chasing. This will cause further fear and frustration and make the behaviour worse in the longer term. It can work if you are able to really scare the dog and suppress the behaviour through fear, but the dog is still scared of the traffic. They are just more scared of you. Over time, this will cause a breakdown in your relationship with the dog, who is now even more scared of traffic then they were before because not only is the traffic scary, but it also causes their owners to be angry too. The chasing behaviour often subsides briefly but then reappears over the longer term.

Exposing them to lots of traffic without telling them off so that they learn that it’s not scary (a process known as “flooding”) can occasionally help, but is unsuccessful in most cases, especially if the dog continues to bark and lunge at the vehicles. Flooding is much more likely to make the dog worse (by terrifying them even more) rather than better.

It’s much better to use a process called desensitisation and counterconditioning, which gradually expose your dog to vehicles at a distance at which they feel safe, so that they learn that vehicles actually aren’t scary and that they don’t have to use barking, lunging or spinning to move them away. Over weeks/months NOT days, you can take the dog closer to traffic with no reaction until they are able to relax more around traffic. There’s more to the training than just this but this explains briefly how I would change the emotion causing the behaviour which in turn then stops the behaviour over the longer term.
It’s exactly the same with sheep training – no handler who wants their dog to work sheep and not nip, would stick a young pup in a pen with strong sheep who scare it. It would terrify the pup and the result would either be a dog who wouldn’t work at all due to fear, or who would grip sheep.

So, for a start, if your young dog starts to car chase, stop walking them next to traffic straight away. Often just avoiding roads for a few months can resolve the issue. If you do meet vehicles on walks, try and pair any vehicles with something nice such as food, but mostly just keep the dog well away from roads until they are older.
You can read more about car chasing in our blog post “Preventing border collie car chasing” or for more information and help with car chasing or any border collie behaviour problem, please get in touch.  I’m always very happy to help. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Why do collies chase cars?”

  1. There’s a lot of sense in this article, much that I agree with and should be helpful to others.
    My case:

    Pollie, young ‘lockdown’ rescue relinquished by young family (child under five) with no breed experience. Fluffy puppy great! 12 kilos of energetic collie not so. Fearful for Childs’ safety Pollie spent much of her day in a crate before being rehomed as mother was having mental health issues.

    We took her on at 9 months: house trained but that’s all. Sociable & friendly but no recall and highly traffic reactive and very strong on the lead (bit clean through a Flexi extender!)

    Her journey begins. I call upon my older dog, Ty, (also a rescue but is pretty well trained) to be her mentor. The traffic issue is a real problem as I live on High Street. Traffic terrifies her. Various attempts at desensitisation fail. Away from traffic we gradually establish the all-important “DOWN” command [I want her to drop like she was shot, no matter how far she is from me]. Work on the non-existent recall, she won’t come near me if she thinks she will be put on lead o restrained. Ignore her, avoid approaching her and reward with treats if she approaches but do NOT put on lead or take hold of her. In time it works. Ty Weill go to the roadside and lie down spontaneously when traffic approaches him (or on command). This is what I desire of Pollie. Being off-lead she still has the ‘flight’ option and she is learning that [DOWN] the roadside is a safe place to lie as traffic passes.

    I’m very cautious as her low profile is not clearly visible. A slow-moving car approaches and she runs across it to me and is hit and bowled over. Unhurt…fortunately! This might have proved a tough lesson for her. She is still highly traffic sensitive and when on lead pulls quite hard (especially crossing roads). She hears approaching traffic and is down at the roadside when it is still several hundred yards away. She is now my radar and her action warns me of approaching traffic which is well out of sight.

    Both of my dogs are far easier to control when off-lead but I wouldn’t recommend my methods to anyone. I would say be very aware of the way you use a lead. To your dog it can be like a phone line and send all sorts of messages! Using it as a restraint and pulling on it might tell your dog that there is something to be feared or even ‘“when I let go you can attack that” Have faith in your dog, let it greet other dogs and people without tugging it back – just be aware of behaviour and be ready to react. Never give a dog a command you know it will not obey. Make sure you have your dog’s attention when you do give a command (Logan whistles are brilliant, dogs can hear them a mile away!) Try to see things as a dog might see them, think like a collie!

    After two years Pollie and I still have a long way to go, learning to respect horses, cattle, sheep and other animals (including rabbits). Her recall is pretty good now and she is no longer reluctant to be on lead (she still pulls – but does not chase – where there is constant traffic).

    • Hi Tim, tha’ts a great post and all very true. Well done for your work with Pollie – it can be a long, and very demoralising journey so it’s so good that you’ve rehomed her and are so committed to working on it with her.


Leave a Comment