Why Do Dogs Chase Garbage Trucks?

Why do some dogs seem to lose their minds when a truck goes by?
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2021, Updated June 2021
Why Do Dogs Chase Garbage Trucks?

The Bark answers readers’ questions about canine behavior. Got a question? Email askbark@thebark.com

So many dogs—even dogs who are fine with cars and pick-ups—lose it when a garbage truck goes 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 who see hulking, noisy garbage trucks react to them, but many do. For those dogs, encountering one while they’re outside can provoke them to chase it, or to erupt in a frantic bout of barking and fence-running. Seeing it while they’re inside the house may set off an attack of frenzied barking at the window.

What is it about garbage trucks that upsets dogs? Pretty much everything. They’re big, they’re loud in a whole bunch of different ways, and they stop and start frequently. Heaven only knows how dogs feel about the variety of smells that emanate from them, but there’s certainly a powerful olfactory component. On top of everything—in towns and cities, at least—they pull up right in front of the dog’s house.

When dogs are afraid of something, they naturally want to increase the distance between themselves and that something. If a dog runs away and hides, she’s obviously afraid and wants to get as far as possible from the source of the fear. Running toward something that scares her may seem counterintuitive. Why not run away from it?

When a dog takes an “I’ll get you before you get me” kind of approach—lunging, charging and barking—her goal is to increase the distance by making the other thing go away. Dogs learn that the truck retreats when they chase it or bark at it, so it’s a behavior they continue to engage in because it’s reinforced every time the truck moves on.

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If your dog is in the reactive group and you want to change the behavior, there are ways to help her dial it back. In order to do that, however, you need to figure out the cause: Is it set off by a desire to chase, or is it fear-based? (Note: Some of these techniques are helpful no matter which is behind the behavior.)

Is the Response Chase-Based?

If a dog is reacting to the garbage truck for the fun of chasing something, then that desire to run and chase can be part of the solution. Since the sight of the vehicle provokes the behavior, one way to turn the behavior around is to literally turn it around: Get your dog to run in the other direction by chasing you or, perhaps, a toy. The more fun this alternative chase is for your dog, the easier it will be to train her to turn away from the truck.

Proximity matters. Start by teaching your dog to chase you (or a toy) when there’s no garbage truck in sight. You can do this outside as well as in your house, either by 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-in) acreage, keep your dog on-leash for safety’s sake. Repeatedly practicing this strategy will build the foundation necessary to teach her to turn away from the truck.

Once your dog is reliably chasing you or the toy, encourage her to do so when the garbage truck is in the vicinity. As with all training, it’s wise to start with situations that are as easy as possible for your dog. Generally, that means when the truck is far away. For some dogs, it’s not reasonable to expect them to chase you or a toy instead of the truck unless the truck’s at least two blocks away. Only try it with the truck closer when she’s really good at doing it at whatever distance she can already handle; decrease the distance by just a little bit each time—perhaps the length of a single house.

Is the Response Fear-Based?

If the behavior stems from fear, you can change your dog’s emotional response by teaching her to associate the truck with treats. To be successful with this classical counterconditioning technique, details matter. Specifically, it is important that the truck is far enough away from your dog that she is not upset by it. Once she learns to associate the garbage truck at that distance with treats, you can start to give her treats when the truck is a little bit closer, but still far enough away that she is not scared.

To help her learn not to be afraid of the garbage truck, she must have many experiences with seeing and hearing it, during which she is not afraid and gets treats. That means you’ll need to very, very gradually decrease the distance between her and the truck 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 reacts fearfully, you are too close; remove her from the situation as soon as you can, and try again at a greater distance.

When Your Dog Is Inside

When teaching your dog to move away from the window or door where she can see the truck, start when the truck is at the maximum distance at which she can see or hear it. Having her move away as soon as she detects the truck’s presence will enhance your efforts to teach her to turn away even when the truck rolls up right outside. Until she can do that, it’s advisable to put her in another room (where she can’t see the truck) with a stuffed Kong or something else she enjoys while the truck is passing directly by.

A basic dog-training strategy that can help with this issue is to teach her to perform an incompatible behavior. If your dog is sitting down, running after a tennis ball or looking at you in anticipation of receiving a Kong, she can’t simultaneously chase the truck. To use this training method, decide what you want your dog to do instead. “Anything else would be fine!” isn’t a suitable option, by the way. You need to choose what you would specifically like her to do, then teach her to do it in the problematic context.

For example, teach your dog that if she turns away from the window when she sees or hears the garbage truck, she will get something that is valuable to her. Be ready with a toy such as a hollow rubber Kong stuffed with top-quality, smelly treats. (I often recommend stuffed Kongs or Kong-like toys because they keep dogs occupied longer—in this case, until the truck has passed. Even a generous handful of loose treats will only last a few seconds, after which the dog will head right back to the window to bark.)

As soon as you hear the garbage truck, put the stuffed toy by your dog’s nose, say “this way,” and lure her to a place where she can no longer see out the window. Then, give her the reward so that she is both reinforced for coming away from the window and has something enticing to keep her occupied for a while. Again, be sure to stuff it with really high-quality treats. It will take the smell of something special to outcompete her interest in the garbage truck; so-so treats, dry treats or kibble are unlikely to cut it.

Once she’s reliably and willingly coming away from the window in response to being lured, start cueing her from a few feet away, encouraging her to turn on her own. With practice, you will be able say “this way” and have her come away from the window without having to lure her.

Eventually, many dogs will get to the point where they notice the garbage truck, then seek out their people in anticipation of the reward they’ve come to expect in that situation.

Manage the Context

Though it may not sound like a satisfying approach, preventing encounters with garbage trucks by avoiding them when possible is an excellent idea. Every time your dog sees a garbage truck and acts in an undesirable way, she’s practicing (and being rewarded for) a behavior you don’t want her to perform. That is counterproductive to your goal of teaching her to do something else when around these vehicles.

The simple strategy of keeping her on-leash while outside goes a long way toward keeping her out of trouble, as does trying not to cross paths with the garbage truck. Don’t walk in the neighborhood on trash pick-up day, at least not at the time of day when the trucks are roaming the streets.

If, through bad luck or bad timing, you can’t avoid the garbage truck on a particular day, have a plan so that one incident doesn’t contribute to making the problem worse. There are a couple of strategies you can employ.

One is to get her out the situation as quickly as possible. By increasing the distance between your dog and the garbage truck, you minimize the damage to her progress. So, move away from it, whether that means heading down a side street; making a U turn and going the other way; or, when inside, moving away from the street-facing side of your home.

Another is to block the truck from your dog’s sight, which may mean pulling down the shades in your house or walking behind a parked vehicle on the street. She’ll still hear the truck, but blocking the visual cues can be helpful.

However you choose to address it, don’t make your dog’s issue with garbage trucks worse by using harsh reprimands or punishment. It goes without saying that we should not punish our dogs. I don’t use punishment in dog training, nor do I recommend that anyone do so, both because it damages the relationship you have with your dog and because it is counterproductive, especially when fear is involved.

With a plan that includes prevention as well as training, you can help your dog handle the monster that we humans refer to as the garbage truck.

Photo / istock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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