New Forest Dog On The Forest Off The Lead

The Thrill of the Chase

We are so privileged to walk our dogs in the beautiful New Forest. That freedom also comes with the responsibility to keep our dogs under control at all times. Many criticisms have been made towards the small minority of owners who do not have proper control of their dogs whilst out on a walk. Attacking, worrying or chasing livestock is against the law, and it can cause stress to wild animals and livestock, even causing them injury and more serious harm in some cases.

So why do dogs have the instinct to chase? Dogs are classed as predators, and all predators have types of behavioural traits known as ‘motor patterns’.  There is a sequence of behaviours that all predators go through, a simplified version of these are EYE, STALK, CHASE, GRAB, BITE, KILL, DISECT.   Over the centuries people have chosen dogs to work for them because of what they could DO, and not for what they looked like.  So dogs that were good at alerting us to danger had the skills of a guard dog.  Dogs that helped work our livestock evolved into herding dogs. Dogs that hunted with us either by sight or scent became our hunting dogs.

 Do not be fooled though, ALL modern breeds of dogs have the ability to chase if the situation arises.   Even the little toy breeds which are our beloved companion animals can chase something in the right circumstances.   Dogs which have strong working instincts need an outlet for these chase instincts.   If your dog feels frustrated or stressed due to lack of an outlet, then they will attempt to seek to remedy this by chasing a squirrel for instance. If you have a pet dog that is frustrated by lack of stimulating activity then it will create its own entertainment.

Chasing is highly addictive. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel excited and highly aroused, and it is this dopamine high that the dogs are seeking when they chase.  If allowed to do so, dogs will actively seek out opportunities to chase something which results in more dopamine being produced which makes them excited and wanting more. This addiction is a hard habit to break. Dogs will also lose impulse control and decision making skills, so they will not respond to you shouting at them while they are chasing. Actually, it is the same process that humans experience when addicted to something – the reward of a win at the slot machines, or a win at the betting shop produces the same effect in some people.

A dogs eye can see movement in the distance far better than we can, and it is this movement (like a running squirrel – or even a tennis ball) that sets off their chase instincts. Actually one of my pet hates are those plastic ball flingers where dogs are required to chase a tennis ball over and over and over again. They are just practicing their chase instincts – getting addicted to the thrill of the chase.

You also need to pay attention to what your dog is doing at all times, you can be easily distracted while talking to a companion or checking your mobile phone, or supervising children. You should be able to see any potential dangers before your dog does, and call them back to you. If you cannot see your dog at all times, then you are not in control of your dog.

So how can you safely give your dog an outlet for its chase instincts?   A good dog training class will show you how to train a good retrieve, play with a tug toy, work with a flirt pole, or something more active like canicross, agility or flyball.

Scentwork in particular is an excellent way to provide a fun outlet for active dogs.  The search in itself is highly rewarding.  It is an opportunity for high mental output with maximum focus. Hiding a retrieve article and sending your dog to use its nose to seek it is a much more satisfying activity than repeatedly flinging a tennis ball. 

So what can you do if your dog has a habit of chasing things? Well, the answer in this case is simple.  If you don’t have control of your dog when walking in the New Forest then keep it on a lead until you have taught it a reliable recall, and you are certain that your dog will come back to you when called – in all circumstances. You can keep your dog on a long line attached to a harness and still enjoy a pleasant walk while you safely build on your dogs focus and recall around distractions.

Training your dog should be a joy!  It is an opportunity to develop its focus on you and to have a strong emotional bond. Eye contact, play, grooming and stroking are all ways to increase the bond you have with your dog. If your dog doesn’t enjoy being with you , it is not going to want to come back to you!  Put the effort in and your time will be repaid tenfold!  So you can safely go out and enjoy your time together in the beautiful New Forest.

Sarah Morris - NFDOG Committee member