“It’s a car, what do you do for a car?”

Chico has learned to associate certain things that he used to be afraid of with treats. In doing that, he has learned to substitute behaviors I want for ones I don’t. Here’s an example. In the beginning, his fear of cars caused him to lunge at them, barking furiously. It was awful for both of us. I even bought a special harness designed so that the leash attaches to a ring on the dog’s chest instead of at the middle of his back*. If he did lunge at a car and I held my ground, when he hit the end of the leash, being connected to me at the center of his chest caused him to spin around and face me instead of what was bothering him. A big part of my job was (and still is) to announce scary things before he noticed them and even had a chance to get agitated. At first, I only had success if Chico was distracted by sniffing at something and I could hear an approaching car before its sound penetrated his consciousness. In those cases, I would announce “Car!” in a happy voice and start offering him treats. Lots of yummy “high-value” treats**. For a long time it only worked sporadically, but after 30 or 50 or 100 cars passed us, his behavior started to change. There came a day when I could say “Chico! It’s a car! What do you do for a car?” and he would look at me with the “is there a cookie in this for me?” look  instead looking at the car. Over time, when he heard a car, he started come over to me and sit at my side looking for a cookie. Eventually, he did this reliably enough that I started letting him go off leash on quiet dirt roads, not just in fields and woods. He wasn’t perfect and my few neighbors quite kindly started to slow down a little when they saw me, giving me a better chance to control in the dog before they got too close and he started yelling at their vehicles (once he started to panic and bark at the vehicle, the only way I could get hold of him was for the vehicle to stop). And he just gets better and better at it. I’d guess that Chico is able to come looking for his car cookie about 97% of the time these days. But 3% chance of a failure that could be fatal to Chico keeps me extra vigilant when we do walk on roads and it makes me keep him on a leash whenever we’re on or near a paved road. Repetition, consistency, and positive reinforcement have altered his behavior.

But it’s more than just staying safe around cars and roads. Chico’s learned that I have situations under control and that he is safe by my side, and that if he comes and sits beside me (instead of running at something scary and hollering at it), things will be OK, and he’ll probably get a cookie in the deal.

*This is the harness I got, there are other brands that may work just as well, but this is the one I was advised to buy. http://www.softouchconcepts.com/product/sense-ible-harness.

**I carry a bag with tiny training treats on my belt, just about all the time. The one I happen to have is the Treat Tote, available many places including, and if your pet or feed store doesn’t have them, through Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Canine-Hardware-Treat-Tote/dp/B000KK2DHI. High value treats are, for Chico, dense, rich and chewy – cheese is a good example.

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One Response to “It’s a car, what do you do for a car?”

  1. Nancy Sheridan says:

    Your ongoing, steady commitment is admirable. This blog post is also very educational for folks who want to learn how to train their furry buddies.

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