Four wheels good, two wheels bad
By John Wade, Special to QMI Agency
I adopted a 2 1/2 year old Cocker Spaniel last August. He is a great dog, but I have to be careful when people come up to him too quickly. He can be a bit skittish at times, and he has snapped at people a couple of times. My question, however, is regarding another problem he has. He doesn't seem to like anyone riding a bike or motorcycle. He barks and growls. One day as I was getting out of my car with him, before I could get his leash on, he was running down the road after a motorcycle. I was shocked. Since then, I'm very careful not to ever let him out without his leash, just in case something comes along that he doesn't like. I'm wondering why he reacts like this and if you think there is any possibility of changing this behaviour. Thanks, M.D.
I'm always a little worried when someone glosses over as serious an issue as snapping at people. Dogs that snap at people aren't "great" dogs, at least not if the people that are getting snapped at get a vote.
I think both of the issues you outlined need to be addressed, but I'm reversing the order - perhaps because I don't ride a motorcycle and somebody stole my bicycle.
At almost a full year with this dog, you're well past what I would consider a reasonable probationary period where a temporary allowance for minor skittishness/snappiness might be considered, and only if others' safety could be guaranteed. Even with precautions, you can only ignore a dog that is truly "snappy" so long. Too often the "snap" turns into a nip, which turns into a bite, which turns into the needle.
I'm not, however, dismissing the seriousness of his chasing the two wheelers. I was asked a while back to provide a bicycling club with strategies to cope with all the "great" dogs that cross their paths. Ironically, one couldn't make it as he'd been upended by a dog earlier in the day and broken a bone.
It's important to make a dog familiar with a variety of wheeled things before 12 weeks of age. Not just bicycles, cars and motorcycles, but skateboards, in-line skates and wheelchairs as well. Even properly socialized, dogs with high prey drive or herding instincts can see these things as rabbits with a death wish or very large, quick sheep.
Training and desensitization combine to address this sort of problem. A border collie that won't stop herding sheep or a police dog that doesn't respond to some variation of "cool your jets" is going to end up in the unemployment line. Getting an obedience foundation where 'stay, come and heel' are taught at a level where they're a job and not a trick is the first step towards a solution. Let's face it, if we can't get our dogs to stay on a mat in our kitchens, they're not going to stay when Lance Armstrong goes whizzing by.
The desensitization part is applied later with proximity training. The same obedience is requested, but from a distance to the hot zone, gradually getting closer over time. You may find it hard to get bicyclists to volunteer as training decoys.
Whether due to herding, prey or fear, most of the dogs I see can be taught to exert better self-control. However, having kids that ride bikes, I don't confuse "better" with "enough". A professional trainer will be able to guide you.