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Dogs and Squirrels: The Thrill of the Chase

Nothing stops a dog in it’s tracks faster than the sudden appearance of a squirrel! Dogs and their obsession with…

Dogs and Squirrels

Nothing stops a dog in it’s tracks faster than the sudden appearance of a squirrel! Dogs and their obsession with squirrels is a love affair that has been going on since the beginning of time. In fact, this week we celebrate that relationship to coincide with the recognition of “Squirrel Appreciation Day” on January 21st. Yes, that is really a “thing”, and nobody appreciates squirrels like dogs do! Our campers will binge on cake, romp with their pals, and take-home squirrel cookies to enjoy later. We’ll even have fleecy squirrels on flirt poles for dogs that are scheduled for Enrichment exercises that day! It’s going to be so much fun!

Dogs inherited the desire to chase squirrels from their ancestors. A couple years back, we talked about this in a blog entitled “What kind of Dog to get With a Cat”: Dogs are designed by nature to chase small things, whether it be a squirrel or a cat. It is called a predatory chase drive. It is actually similar to a “reflex” in that it’s a canine’s natural response to stimuli. The instinct is triggered by movement, so anything that moves quickly past your dog, whether it be a ball, a bicycle, squirrel or a cat, gets an instantaneous reaction. Our dog’s ancestor’s hunted and chased small vermin for food. The desire to chase is still very instinctive, but now-days, with exception to hunters, dogs will usually chase just because it’s fun, and because – intrinsically – they find chasing to be very gratifying.

Why do some dogs chase squirrels and others don’t?

Some breeds have a stronger instinct to chase squirrels than others. My dog will raise his ears and perk up at the sight of a squirrel, but his desire to do anything further – like chase the squirrel – just does not present itself. However, a dog I owned many years ago, a Beagle, experienced a complete and immediate transformation at the sight of a squirrel (or a rabbit, for that matter!). It’s like something snapped and she instantly went from lapdog to predator. The Jack Russells I had in the past had a similar reaction.

Beagles belong to the AKC Hound group. Most dogs in in this group are natural born hunters – the Beagle, the Coonhound, Bloodhound, and many more. Whether by scent or by sight, these hunters live for the chase. Jack Russells, belong to the AKC Terrier group which is another group known for their hunting expertise. Other groups that excel at hunting and chasing would be the Sporting group and the Herding group. These breeds all have one thing in common and that is a very strong prey drive. They derive great pleasure from the chase. Other dogs, companion dogs and the like, could care less. My Lhasa Apso (of the AKC Non-Sporting group) thinks squirrels are pretty cool but chasing them is so ho-hum.

When a strong prey drive is problematic

Dogs cannot help their predatory drive. It is instinctive. Their compulsion to go after that quick movement is hard-wired. If they see a squirrel, those instincts kick-in and they are off to the chase! In our modern world, that can be dangerous… Will they run into traffic? Will they get lost? Will they injure someone’s cat?

An unchecked prey drive can cause a dog to start chasing people on bicycles, joggers, or even cars. Heaven forbid they chase and possibly hurt running children. Sometimes the desire is so strong that the dog becomes aggressive or reactive in a predatory situation. Correcting them for wrongdoing is important, but to punish them for their natural tendencies would be wrong. The key is to teach them to control their impulses.

Correcting your dog’s prey drive

“Correcting” your dog’s prey drive is not really the goal… “Controlling” or “managing” a prey drive is more appropriate. Holiday Barn Pet ResortsProfessional Dog Trainers work to manage a strong prey drive by using distraction training and impulse control, as well as cultivating a strong basic obedience foundation.

It starts with teaching the dog how to focus. That can be tough. Impulse control is not inherent in our pups. Dogs, especially ones with strong prey drives, will act out without thinking. Through professional training, a dog can learn to shift their attention away from the prey and on to you. As that happens, the dog is rewarded for their attention to you. With practice, a dog learns to look to you first when the instinct to chase is triggered.

This past June, we published separate Facebook postings that were sent to us from two of our Training graduate’s parents. Both training grads, Otto and Remi, responded beautifully when faced with one of their most tempting adversaries – deer! Otto’s Mom said that prior to Training, he would have dragged her across the pavement to go after the deer, but instead, he stayed calm and listened to his Mom. Remi, a German shorthair Pointer, a breed known for very strong prey drives, also quietly watched a deer in the yard while in complete control of his impulses.

Embracing a strong prey drive in your dog

There is a positive aspect to your dog’s strong prey drive. A hunting dog is motivated by this natural instinct, or else they would be an epic fail as a hunter. Dogs training for agility or police work need that eagerness and motivation to perform their jobs well. Working dogs that herd livestock are excited to do that which comes naturally to them.

Rather than completely prohibiting your dog from acting out their instincts, consider channeling those natural talents towards a dog sport. Dogs love games and because of their innate tendencies, they are real pros.

Sports that take advantage of a dog’s high prey drive

Many of our Professional Dog Trainer’s own dogs have high prey drives and our Trainers have curbed that drive through a variety of dog sports. Rory, Posey and Chappie are great at FastCAT. In FastCAT, the dog chases an artificial lure on a 100-yard course while being timed. Just think of it as a 100-yard dash like we used to have to do in gym class. CAT (Coursing Ability Test) is another type of timed run on a 300 – 600-yard long course. The goal is to finish within 1 ½ – 2 minutes (based on the length of the course). Rory, Chappie, Atlas, and Posey all enjoy Dock Diving too. In Dock Diving, the dog satisfies their natural obsession for retrieving by enthusiastically chasing their favorite toy right into a large pool of water!

Lure coursing is another fun sport for dogs that like to run. Rather than running a straight course, as in CAT, they run in all sorts of patterns while chasing a lure. Flyball and Disc Dog are fun sports to try too.

If you are not into organized sports, or just don’t have the time, a good game of fetch is very satisfying to your high prey dog. All you need is a tennis ball or a frisbee, and a secure environment.

At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we find that dogs with high prey drives really enjoy flirt poles during their Enrichment activities. A flirt pole is basically a stick with a rope attached to a lure of some sort. We entice the dog by moving the rope and lure through a variety of motions, which gives the dog the opportunity to pounce, jump, and show off all kinds of athletic abilities while having a great time.

Final Thoughts

Do you need help managing your dog’s prey drive? Let us help! Give our Professional Dog Trainer’s a call. In Glen Allen, the number is 672-2200, and in Midlothian, the number is 794-5400.

Oh, and don’t forget to make a reservation for your dog for this coming Thursday’s “Squirrel Appreciation Day” at Camp Holiday Barn!

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