Jump to section
Rat Terriers are named for, well, hunting rats! It's all in the name! But can this little ratting machine go after other small vermin like squirrels? The answer is yes. While some of the skills are a little different from those used to hunt ground dwelling vermin that Rat Terriers were specifically bred to hunt, they can adapt to learning to tree squirrels for hunting. Hunting squirrels for meat only has a sanctioned season in the Eastern US, however, squirrels can become menaces, and pests, no matter where they are located. These pesky critters can damage homes if they decide to move into your attic or eaves. After all, it may be warmer in winter! The solution may be a squirrel hunting dog, if you're trying to rid yourself of a pest problem, or if you are going to hunt squirrel for pelts or meat. A Rat Terrier has an excellent prey drive and they love to chase small critters. It won't take much motivation to train your Rat Terrier to hunt squirrels instead of rats!
Rat Terriers traditionally chase small vermin which burrow underground, but squirrels are arboreal in nature. Training your Rat Terrier to hunt squirrels will take some guidance on your part, and an adjustment of his traditional hunting habits on your dog’s part. You can teach your Rat Terrier to locate the squirrel, by scent or sight, chase it up the tree, alert you of location with barking, and then hold the squirrel there for you to come along and remove it.
The great thing about Rat Terriers is that they tend to hunt close to their handlers, so they don't miss opportunities to tree squirrels nearby. A far ranging dog may go farther, but is not necessarily covering more ground and may be too far away before the squirrel bolts from treetop to treetop, making a quick escape. Encouraging this close hunting trait in your Rat Terrier is part of making him a good squirrel dog.
Before hunting with your Rat Terrier, you will want to make sure he is used to gunfire so he is not startled when hunting. Other squirrel hunting dogs can be a great resource to teach an inexperienced dog how to look for and chase squirrels, and your Rat Terrier will soon learn to mimic their hunting behaviours. Good obedience and recall is very important, so you can direct and keep your dog out of trouble. Squirrel scent, carcasses, and tails can all be used to motivate your dog and familiarize him with squirrels, as can a live trap squirrel, and a small cage that can be hung from a tree.
The Acclimatizing Method
Start with a squirrel tail
When your Rat Terrier is a puppy around three to six months of age, give him a squirrel tail to play with. This will introduce him to scent and sight, as the large bushy tail is the most visible part of a squirrel.
Socialize with other dogs
Socialize your puppy with other dogs so that when he is introduced to other squirrel hunting dogs at a later date, he is familiar with how to interact. Starting earlier is best.
Get used to gunfire
Familiarize your Rat Terrier with gun fire. Use small calibre rifles and pistols on targets, rewarding your dog for being calm around gunfire to create a positive association. This will probably take the longest, as gunfire is loud and scary.
Introduce live squirrel
Hang a caged squirrel that has been live trapped in a wire cage from a tree. Introduce your Rat Terrier and get him excited about the squirrel. Only do this a few times in short sessions so as not to frustrate your dog. Ensure the safety of the squirrel during this training.
Let the squirrel go and let your Rat Terrier chase the squirrel up a tree. Include other experienced hunting dogs if available. Harvest the treed squirrel. Be certain that you have a means to remove both the squirrel and your dog safely from the tree.
The Shape Hunting Method
Train your dog to speak on command. Using treats, capture barking when it occurs and pair it with a command. Reinforce this command as often as possible. If necessary, pair this command with a 'Quiet' command in order to stop the barking when you want to.
Teach a retrieve
Teach your Rat Terrier to retrieve objects, starting with tennis balls, then rags, then a squirrel tail. The commands necessary for this will be 'Fetch', and a release command such as 'Drop It'. This will come in handy later when he is catching squirrels.
Cage squirrel in tree
Tie a squirrel tail to a pole and get your Rat Terrier interested in chasing the tail on a stick. Put the squirrel tail in a tree, ask your dog to speak, and reward speaking with a treat. This teaches your Rat Terrier to alert you and also gets him used to looking up for squirrels.
Put skills together
Start taking your Rat Terrier out into wilderness areas looking for squirrels. Get him used to terrain and the sound of gunfire during this training. You may want to differentiate the locations you practice in to get your dog used to various types of ground and trees.
When your Rat Terrier trees a squirrel and signals you, harvest the squirrel and encourage your Rat Terrier to retrieve and bring the squirrel to you using his 'Fetch' command.
The Scenting Squirrels Method
Although squirrel hunting requires the eyes and ears of your Rat Terrier, do not forget the nose! Obtain squirrel scent from a carcass or purchase it commercially and cover a rag or squirrel tail with the scent.
Create scent trail
Drag the scented item to create a simple trail and put the item a few feet up a tree. Start lower to begin with, increasing the height as you go along. Take your time with this part.
Introduce to trail
Introduce your Rat Terrier to the beginning of the scent trail and encourage him to locate and follow the trail. If necessary, you can pair the squirrel scent with a food smell like peanut butter or other treats at first to help your dog out.
Reinforce finding object
When your dog gets to the treed item, encourage your dog to get excited and bark, rewarding him with food or play. These behaviors should be working in tandem, so practice them often.
Make more complex
Repeat several times, increasing the difficulty of scent trail and the length. Remove the paired food scent until your Rat Terrier is reliably following squirrel scent trails.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 05/30/2018, edited: 01/08/2021