How do I get my dog to stop chasing squirrels?

Posted on January 22nd, 2018 by FetchMasters in Positive Dog Training

Denver, Colorado, sports a healthy population of both dogs and squirrels — archenemies with very specific places on the food chain. So, as you might imagine, customers frequently request help from our dog trainers to get their dogs to stop chasing squirrels.

NOTE: While this article is primarily about dogs and squirrels, we have incorporated the following principles to control dogs amidst all kinds of wildlife: game birds, waterfowl, deer, rabbits, etc.

Two Important Points about Dogs and Squirrels

  • Dogs are predators, squirrels are prey. 
    In most cases, dogs want to eat squirrels. You may be squeamish about that, but your dog probably thinks of the little prey animals like you think of pizza. They cannot help liking the prospect of a delicious meal any more than you can. Additionally, dogs are heavily reinforced by the thrill of the chase — even if they do not catch the varmint.
  • You are not going to get your dog to stop liking squirrels.
    Well, technically you could get your dog to stop liking squirrels, but that would take some fairly heavy, punitive aversives, which we do not use at FetchMasters. So, we will focus on a more positive way to approach the problem. In fact, when clients ask how to make their dog stop liking squirrels, I like to pose the following question …

Why would you want your dog to stop liking squirrels?

The truth is, a lot of people misunderstand the meaning of positive dog training. They think it is “treat training,” and often call positive trainers “cookie pushers.” This is a fallacy.

Positive dog trainers usually do use treats in the early stages of training to create specific skills. However, most good trainers also randomize the delivery of treats or move to more of a “real life reward” system of reinforcing the dog as soon as it is practical to do so.

In other words, positive training is not about food treats. It is about positively rewarding the dog for doing what we ask. At FetchMasters, we often make the dog’s reward whatever he wants at the moment, as long as it is safe.

Squirrels are an extremely high value reward for many dogs, and if you can set up training scenarios to incorporate them, you can generate some very good obedience.

How to Use Squirrels as a Reward

Are you cringing? Don’t worry. No squirrels get harmed in the writing of this article.

Whenever using squirrels as a training tool, we advise you to make sure the squirrel is close to a tree, and you are far from roads. Otherwise, the squirrel may end up dead or your dog may end up streaking across a road in hot pursuit.

First, you want to get your dog’s attention when he is visually locked onto a squirrel. With your dog on a nice long lead (say, 30-ish feet), say your dog’s name. If necessary, get close to your dog’s ear. If your dog looks at you — even if very quickly before returning his gaze back to the squirrel — tell him “Good!” and let him chase the squirrel up a tree.

Repeat until your dog starts to understand that looking at you earns him the thrill of the chase.

Second, start building some basic obedience commands into the scenario. Tell your dog to sit or to lay down. When the dog complies, mark that behavior with “Good!” and let your dog chase.

Third, build up to some more useful alternative behaviors, such as heeling the dog away from the squirrel for a few feet … and then a few yards … and then longer distances. Always reward by allowing the chase.

Another very useful alternative behavior is coming to you when called in the presence of the squirrel. Start with a very short recall — no more than a foot or two. Gradually make it longer. Then work on sending your dog after the squirrel and calling him back to you before finally releasing him to run the squirrel up the tree.

Once your dog can peform the beahviors you want in the presence of squirrels, you can start being more random or selective about when you reward him with the chase.

In Conclusion

The possibilities are limitless, but you may find yourself unable to get the dog to perform certain behaviors. Whenever this happens, train the dog to do a smaller, easier behavior.

For example, if the dog has difficulty coming a few steps toward you, reward him instead for moving one paw in your direction, and then two, etc. An incremental approach is a key to building difficult behaviors amidst high distractions.

Hopefully this helps you in your quest to train your dog to be a great outdoor companion.

If you live in or around Denver and need any help, feel free to Contact FetchMasters for Assistance.