A walk in the park or a stroll down a country lane can turn into a frenzied hunt for squirrels for some dogs and their owners! A flighty little dash of fur and suddenly Fido is off on the chase. His prey drive kicks in and there is very little you can do when this happens. Hunting, chasing and rushing off after small animals are a worry if you are out walking and trying to enjoy some exercise. Everyone wants to feel safe to walk in a park or open country environment with their dog.
Chasing squirrels is particularly common for breeds of dogs with instinctive desires to hunt. They get the scent of a little critter like a squirrel and Mother Nature takes over. Small breeds of dogs, like Terriers, are natural born hunters, but in many situations, uncontrolled chasing can have unhappy consequences. Overcoming instinctive reactions is challenging but not impossible. Armed with patience and some helpful guidelines you will be able to make a difference and curb this behavior.
The Root of the Behavior
Hunting is a natural behavior of animals like dogs that have descended from wolves. Nature has equipped dogs with a strong sense of smell and a desire to chase smaller creatures. Their brains are wired to respond to an animal running away with a chase reaction. Add to that some breeds are bred to track and flush out game. They are driven by the scent of the animal they are chasing and an innate prey drive response. When your dog gets into this instinctive mode, it is difficult to change his mind without some prior intervention and coping skills.
A dog’s keen sense of smell is the key issue. Dogs have a sense of smell that is between 1000 to 10,000 times more powerful than ours. Some dogs, like Beagles, are incredibly scent driven. Dogs also have a large olfactory center in their brain where they can store all the information about smells they know. The scent of squirrel is probably high up there on the list of scents to remember. In some cases, long after the squirrel has disappeared, your dog will carry on the chase just because he still smells the scent of the squirrel. The hound group of dogs is especially scent driven. It is a good idea to find out about a breed and it’s instinctive behavior before you contemplate having them join your family.
A good place to start correcting the behavior is with some basic obedience training. If you are aware that the breed you have is a member of the scent hound division then keeping their focus on you is going to be very important. Attending obedience classes and learning the basic commands of sit and stay will give you more control. Reward your dog for listening and being focused on you. Little treats that he really loves will give the message that you have a better reward to offer than the squirrel in the tree.
Correcting instinctive behavior is challenging. While you are trying to correct the behavior walk on a leash or even use a Halti Collar to have control over lunging and pulling. Avoid areas with lots of squirrels while you are training. Start your obedience activities a fair distance away from the squirrel zone and move closer as you see your dog being more focused on you and less on the squirrels. Prey driven behavior may need the help of an animal behaviorist if you are not able to deal with this yourself.
Encouraging the Behavior
Squirrel chasing is always going to distract your dog on a walk as it buys into their prey drive instinct. The natural sequence of predatory action is search, stalk, chase, grab and so on. It is important to watch out for the initial stages of this sequence and intercept before the chase begins. Try to watch your dog and anticipate the beginning of the sequence and intercept with a distraction. A noise distraction is often successful as this will draw attention away from the squirrel even if it is just for a moment. A tin full of coins to shake or loud whistle could be the noise distraction.
The prey driven dog or scent hound may actually bring you a lot of joy if you recognize their natural ability and join groups of other dogs and their owners participating in tracking events. Training with other dogs and rewarding your dog for the behavior he was bred to do could be great fun for both of you. Learn how to play scent games at home or in your backyard. Start with a few bits of kibble or a treat and let your dog search for the treats. Say ‘find it’ or ‘go fetch’ as a command and then build on the experience by hiding treats in more difficult places. You will be rewarding your dog for using his natural instinct and challenging his mental and physical abilities.
Although chasing squirrels is not to be encouraged, participating in scent trail groups and organized activities is a great idea. Search and rescue activities and agility are all the kinds of dog outlets that will go a long way towards enjoying the instinctive nature of your dog as a true blue hound.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Your dog’s safety is always of paramount importance and therefore encouraging random chasing in public places poses dangers to the dog and other citizens. Starting obedience training early on in your dog’s life will help enormously to give you the upper hand. Trying to break the pattern of a prey drive instinct will require patience and determination. You will always have to manage your walk with care as you look out for the instinctive signs of a chase mode. Getting your dog to focus on you is the important behavior you are looking for. Remember the chase is enjoyable for your dog. He is having fun while you struggle to get him under control. Some breeds are more driven to chase than others so take that into consideration and find activities to allow for this instinctive desire to chase. Your prey driven dog will thank you!
Preventing squirrel chasing could be almost impossible with some breeds of dogs but you may be pleasantly surprised when some of your patience and time spent training pays off. Imagine how you and your dog will feel after a round of ‘ap-paws’ in the park when you have a moment of success. You could even diffuse a difficult situation with a funny joke:
Knock knock. Who’s there? Fido. Fido who? Fidon’t catch that squirrel, I am going to go nuts!
By a Shiba Inu lover Patty Oelze
Published: 02/07/2018, edited: 01/30/2020