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Why do dogs chase garbage trucks?

So many dogs – even dogs that are good at handling cars and pickups – lose it when a garbage truck drives by or, worse, stops to collect the trash in front of their house. What’s going on and what can we do about it?

Not all dogs that see huge, noisy garbage trucks respond to them, but many do. If these dogs come across you while they are outside, it can cause them to chase after you or break out in a frantic fit of barking and fence racing. If you see it while they are indoors it can lead to a fit of frenzied barking at the window.

What about garbage trucks that upset dogs? Nearly everything. They’re big, they’re loud in many different ways, and they stop and start often. Heaven only knows how dogs feel about the variety of smells they emit, but there is certainly a strong olfactory component to it. In addition, they stop – at least in cities – right in front of the dog’s house.

Of course, when dogs are afraid of something, they want to increase the distance between themselves and it. Obviously, when a dog runs away and hides, it is afraid and wants to be as far from the source of the fear as possible. Running towards something that scares her may seem counterintuitive. Why not run away?

When a dog takes some sort of “I’ll get you before you get me” approach – lounging, charging, and barking – their goal is to increase the distance by making the other thing disappear. Dogs learn that the truck will retreat if they chase it or bark. So it is behavior that they continue to engage in because it is amplified every time the truck moves on.

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If your dog is in the reactive group and you want to change their behavior, there are ways you can help them call them back. However, to do this you need to find out the cause: is it triggered by a desire to hunt, or is it based on fear? (Note: some of these techniques are helpful regardless of what’s behind the behavior.)

Is the answer chase based?

If a dog responds to the garbage truck to have fun chasing something, that desire to run and chase can be part of the solution. Since the sight of the vehicle provokes the behavior, one way to reverse the behavior is to literally flip it around: let your dog run the other way, chasing you or maybe a toy. The more fun this alternative chase is for your dog, the easier it will be to train him to turn away from the truck.

Proximity is important. First, teach your dog to chase you (or a toy) when a garbage truck is not in sight. You can do this both outside and around your house by either holding the toy and running with it, or tossing it. Don’t throw it too far, and if you’re on a sidewalk rather than in a fenced yard or your own (ideally fenced) area, keep your dog on a leash for safety. Repeated practice of this strategy forms the foundation required to teach them to turn away from the truck.

If your dog is reliably tracking you or the toy, encourage them to do so when the garbage truck is nearby. As with any exercise, it is wise to start with situations that are as simple as possible for your dog. Generally this means when the truck is far away. Some dogs are not reasonably expected to chase you or a toy in place of the truck unless the truck is at least two blocks away. Only try the closer truck if she is really good at doing it at the distance she can already cover. Reduce the distance a little each time – maybe the length of a single house.

Is the answer fear-based?

If the behavior is due to fear, you can change your dog’s emotional response by teaching him to associate the truck with treats. To be successful with this classic counter-conditioning technique, details are important. In particular, it’s important that the truck is far enough away from your dog so that he doesn’t get upset about it. Once she learns to associate the garbage truck with goodies at that distance, you can start giving her goodies when the truck is a little closer but still far enough away that she is not afraid.

In order for her to learn not to be afraid of the garbage truck, she must have many seeing and hearing experiences in which she is not afraid and is given treats. This means that you have to move the distance between her and the truck very, very gradually during training sessions – a process that can take weeks or even months – and always give her treats and make sure she is comfortable. If she’s anxious, you’re too close; Remove them from the situation as soon as possible and try again from a greater distance.

When your dog is inside

When teaching your dog to move away from the window or door where they can see the truck, start when the truck is the maximum distance they can see or hear them. If she drives away as soon as she detects the presence of the truck, improve your efforts in teaching her to turn away, even if the truck is rolling right outside the door. Until she can do that, it’s wise to take her to another room (where she can’t see the truck) with a stuffed Kong or something else she likes while the truck is driving right by.

A basic dog training strategy that can help with this problem is teaching her to perform incompatible behavior. If your dog is sitting down, chasing a tennis ball, or looking at you in anticipation of a kong, he will not be able to chase the truck at the same time. To use this training method, decide what you want your dog to do instead. “Everything else would be fine!” is not a suitable option, by the way. You need to choose what specifically you want her to do and then teach her to do it in the problematic context.

For example, teach your dog that if he turns away from the window, sees or hears the garbage truck, he will get something that is valuable to him. Be ready with a toy like a hollow Gummi Kong filled with high quality, smelly goodies. (I often recommend stuffed kongs or kong-like toys because they keep dogs busy longer – in this case, until the truck has passed. Even a generous handful of loose treats lasts only a few seconds, after which the dog goes straight back to the window to bark.)

As soon as you hear the garbage truck, put the stuffed animal to your dog’s nose, say “this way” and lure him into a place where he can no longer see out the window. Then give her the reward so that she is both empowered to get away from the window and has something tempting to keep her occupied for a while. Again, be sure to fill it with really high quality goodies. It’ll take the smell of something special to surpass their interest in the garbage truck. Mediocre treats, dry treats, or nibbles are unlikely to cut it.

Once she gets away from the window reliably and willingly to be lured, call her from a distance and encourage her to go into business on her own. With practice, you can say “so” and let her get away from the window without having to lure her.

Eventually, many dogs will get to the point where they notice the garbage truck and then seek out their people to await the reward that awaits them in this situation.

Manage the context

While it doesn’t sound like a satisfactory approach, preventing encounters with garbage trucks by avoiding them whenever possible is a great idea. Every time your dog sees a garbage truck and starts behaving undesirably, they are engaging in (and being rewarded for) behavior that they are not supposed to do. This is counterproductive to your goal of teaching her to do something else around these vehicles.

The simple strategy of keeping her on a leash outside goes a long way in keeping her out of trouble, as is trying not to cross with the garbage truck. Do not go into the neighborhood on the day of the garbage collection, at least not at the time of day the trucks are driving through the streets.

If bad luck or bad timing makes you unable to avoid the garbage truck on a particular day, have a plan so that an incident doesn’t help make the problem worse. There are a few strategies you can use.

One is to get her out of the situation as soon as possible. By increasing the distance between your dog and the garbage truck, you will minimize the damage to their progress. So move away from whether this means driving down a back street. make a U-turn and go the other way; or if you are inside, move away from the street side of your home.

Another option is to protect the truck from your dog’s eyes. This could mean pulling down the blinds in your house or walking behind a parked vehicle in the street. She will still hear the truck, but blocking the visual cues can help.

Whichever way you choose, don’t make your dog’s garbage truck problem worse by applying harsh reprimands or punishments. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t punish our dogs. I do not use punishment in dog training, nor do I recommend that anyone do it, both because it harms the relationship you have with your dog and because it is counterproductive, especially when it comes to fear.

With a plan that includes both prevention and training, you can help your dog deal with the monster we humans call garbage trucks.

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