Squirrels and dogs. This game of chase and stop is a game many dog parents are well aware of.
And if you feel like this is becoming a problem with your dog, don’t worry. It is not an unsolvable problem.
In fact, if you understand the genesis of the problem, there is a systematic way to fix it. And that’s what we will look at here.
You might have encountered this a lot when you take your little one for a walk in the park or any public place with a few trees and a little activity. What is supposed to be exercise time for you and your pet can turn into a nightmarish squirrel chase and lead you to scream the name of your dog on top of your lungs.
Chasing squirrels is common for certain breeds of dogs, even the small ones like Terriers because of their prey instincts. This happens quite naturally in breeds that are originally hunting dogs.
This behavior typically involves five stages: searching, stalking, chasing, biting to hold the prey and killing. If your dog is a hound, like a Beagle or a Greyhound, they will want to stalk and flush out the prey.
But if you have a herder, like an Australian Shepherd or a Border Collie, they might stop with chasing. This is why you see some dogs slow down when they get closer to the squirrel.
It is kind of like a game and they are mostly being playful with each other. Rest easy knowing that your dog does not hate squirrels.
Although no dog actually hates squirrels, this is a problem if you don’t know how to fix it. This ridiculous and seemingly endless chasing happens because dogs smell their prey and get into action before you can stop or distract them.
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If you have encountered it, you know that it is not limited to squirrels. Any small animals that fall in the “prey” category of their food chain can kick up these instincts.
This behavior should be controlled for practical reasons. Firstly, they don’t have to hunt for food and secondly, it is an inconvenience for the public around you.
They might even be worried for their safety, especially if this happens in a park setting with little kids around. To save yourself and your dog from unwanted trouble, you need to control their reaction to the scent of the smaller animal.
The chase is sometimes playful but sometimes it has an unhappy ending with a dead squirrel. So the first thing you need to do is watch out for overwhelming hunting instincts.
Observe your dog and see when they are tipped off about the presence of the little guys. Now, this exercise can be a bit of a challenge but it is not impossible and frankly is necessary.
Get ready to be really patient with your pet and follow the guidelines to make life easy for everyone.
If you have a dog that has descended from wolves, this desire to chase and kill is fuelled by their strong sense of smell. As soon as they get a whiff of that sweet prey presence, they will get into action.
So you need to flush that out of their system before it gets out of hand. For this, you will have to rewire their brains with a little obedience training.
We say training because a dog’s sense of smell is a lot more powerful than what we have. It is about 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful because it is a part of their survival toolkit.
Their brains have a fantastic olfactory center that stores all the information, particularly about different scents, to help them navigate their everyday life. So your Terrier or Beagle probably has a great response to the smell of a squirrel.
If you have noticed, it is possible that the chase continues long after the smaller animal has disappeared. This is just one example of how potent their ability to smell is.
Another explanation is that the smell lingers and your dog is still working on that. This is common among hounds and it only means that you must do thorough research about the breed before you bring the dog home.
Training and Fixing
Now, if you know that you have a hunter in the family, you must put some time and resources aside for obedience training. Part of that curriculum is to address these prey instincts and make them milder or redirect them elsewhere before the puppy gets older.
It is a lot harder to make modifications to the behavior of adult dogs, especially when it comes to their natural instincts. It is also a matter of urgency because the more they are allowed to chase, the better they get at it, the more they enjoy it and the tougher it gets for you to dissuade them from the activity.
Obedience training to address this issue must start with controlling their focus. You must do this away from a place where smaller animals like squirrels linger.
Start by teaching your dog basic commands and how to respond to them before you throw them in the deep end. This process starts when you teach them to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ in one place so that you have control over your pet.
You probably know that giving them treats and rewarding them for good behavior and obeying commands goes a long way in this exercise of control. Remember that you must be the one in control and find ways to communicate that to your pet.
The rewiring starts right here. Remember that your message to the pet is that treats and rewards are a lot better than chasing a squirrel.
So, better make them enticing enough for your dog to ignore its natural instincts. Obviously, this can be challenging and might take some time. Hence, the training.
You can also use a leash during training to give them a sense of the real deal. This will also get you used to the amount of tugging and pulling you will have to do in the initial days.
As you move towards areas with a little disturbance, meaning places where squirrels are expected to be found, both you and your dog will get a sense of what you are dealing with.
This introduction of a little distraction to your dog’s world and controlling them at the right time is the next step.
You might feel the need to consult an animal behaviorist because you just cannot handle your dog at some point in this training process. This is nothing out of the ordinary.
In fact, the help of a trained professional will serve you well. Dog trainers get this all the time.
You need to bring the dog to a point where the smell of a squirrel or any small animal they like to chase doesn’t mean, “found a squirrel. Let me chase it”. Over time, it has to come to mean that, “when I smell a squirrel, I play with mom or dad and get rewarded for it”.
The Concept of Distraction
As the natural order of things goes, it is the squirrel that distracts your dog. So change that to something else. We have discussed treats and rewards as being a distraction.
But before you get there, you need something that draws the dog’s attention as powerfully as prey does. That must happen right at the beginning of the predator sequence.
This means you need to interrupt the flow of search, stalk, chase and kill, etc. You must get in there before the search begins.
Noise has proved to be an effective way of doing it. It is momentary but certainly gives you enough time to be ready with your next move.
A jar of coins or a whistle often does the trick. Once you have their attention, give them something else to chase, like a ball or a toy.
Once you have their attention, get to the next step. You need to build a strong response to ‘stop’ and ‘recall’ signals that will be coming from you.
If you make sure it’s an enticing one, the two of you can play one hell of a game of fetch. And if it works well, you can use these instincts, later on, to get them together with other dogs and participate in track events, as long as your pet enjoys them.
Training with other dogs can be fun for your little one and a learning experience for you. Both of you have the chance to be a part of a community here.
This training also comes in handy if you have other pets in the house or the neighborhood. Your fella will be a well-behaved dog and might even end up being very social which is a great and also necessary trait.
Having a trained dog means great things for the dog, for you and everyone who is likely to come in contact with the pet. When you allow your dog to go for random chases in public places it puts their life in danger too.
A dog that is not in the habit of being interrupted when it is driven by the killer instinct is likely to stop at nothing. This can be a blinding force that will land it in trouble or end the chase in injury.
So, if you start the obedience training right in the beginning, that habit gets lost before it settles into a pattern. This requires patience, determination and a little trickery on your part.
At no point in the process should you allow your dog to think that this is a game. Remember that a lot of dogs quite enjoy chasing everything that happens at the time.
So, even if you are struggling, they will continue to have fun. To let this behavior go unpunished can be catastrophic.
Also remember that chasing is part of their nature and it will never entirely go away. So, find other activities that allow them to let this part of their behavior out.
Not only will this get them to exercise but also fulfill their organic need to run after things while keeping them safe. Otherwise, it will lead to frustration and result in bad behavior.
Some of these rules with squirrels also come into play with your other pets. As long as your dog is allowed to chase a living thing, there is a possibility that they will replicate that behavior outdoors.
So the only things you should really allow them to chase are inanimate objects like toys and balls that you use while playing with them.
This can be particularly time taking with hunting breeds like Terriers that are bred to hunt and kill animals like rodents. And if you grow tired of training and feel like giving up, remember that your dog is your baby and you have responsibilities.
Failing that, remember that the last thing you want to do is watch your dog bring home a dead rat. Or the risk they put themselves in while blindly (or wildly) chasing after cars or other vehicles on the street.
Note that some breeds exhibit a strong prey drive even if they were not bred for hunting. Siberian Huskies and Boxers are a good example of dogs with a high prey drive.
The Bottom Line
Dogs do not hate squirrels. They chase them because for many breeds, it is a part of their nature.
This behavior is common among dogs that were bred to hunt and sometimes kill. Terriers, Beagles and Australian Shepherds are a good example.
If your dog runs around all consumed by their passion to chase, it might be a problem for your dog, you and those around you. It is also a matter of everyone’s safety.
So you must control this behavior with obedience training. Find ways to rewire their prey drive and get control over the situation.
You can do this yourself with a lot of care and precautions or get a professional to help you. Either way, it is not optional.