A fascination with the movement of small critters is part of dogs' predatory heritage.
Distraction training and impulse control are good ways to channel critter obsession.
Dog sports like Earthdog and Barn Hunt offer ways for dogs to safely sniff out critters.
There’s often no quicker way to get a dog’s attention than a squirrel sneaking across the yard. Lots of dogs love squirrels, birds, rabbits, and other small critters. Patrolling the backyard for their presence is a favorite pastime. In fact, small animals are one of the trickiest training distractions.
We live on about 1 acre of land and every morning we have squirrels coming down onto our lawn or climbing the pool screen and it drives our Murphy crazy with barking...he can see them through the window - so close, yet so far away. His obsession with the squirrels doesn't stop there. When we do our morning and afternoon walks; without fail Murphy will see the squirrels and get easily distracted. Needless to say, my dog chases squirrels daily. My dog has never caught one, but he sure does love chasing them.
Why Do Dogs Chase Squirrels?
There are many reasons why your dog may chase little creatures, like raccoons, porcupines, skunks, and chipmunks, but the most common are curiosity, playfulness, and predatory drive.
Curiosity or Playfulness
A young puppy, for example, may be intrigued by fast-moving critters and chase after them to find out what they're doing, or to join in and "play" with them. This natural curiosity is wonderful, but it's important to keep a close eye on your pet while outdoors. You don't want them to wander away while chasing prey, and you wouldn't want them to be bitten by a small animal either!
If not for curiosity, why do dogs chase squirrels? While some dogs may just want to play with a squirrel, there are others who see a critter as their prey, and their predatory drive kicks in. Dogs who are predatory chasers are attempting to catch their prey — and eat or extinguish it. You'll want to make sure a dog with a predatory drive is also watched afterward so that they don't run far away (and so you don't get "greeted" regularly with a mouthful of squirrel).
On the other hand, there's no need for concern if your dog doesn't seem interested in chasing squirrels or other small animals. They simply may not have the impulse. However, if your dog was once extremely driven to chase prey, yet suddenly shows no interest, it may be a smart idea to check in with their veterinarian. Any sudden changes in behavior may be indicative that something is wrong.
Which Breeds Are the Biggest Chasers?
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), sighthounds of all sizes, such as Afghan hounds and Whippets, were bred to chase. Other breeds, specifically herding dogs such as border collies and German shepherds, are also inherently prone to chasing, due to their drive to corral animals. On the opposite end of the scale, highly energetic breeds, such as Jack Russells, Beagles, and Yorkshire Terriers, will often be away and running at the slightest sign of a bushy tail disappearing into a bush or around a tree.
But that doesn't mean a different breed can't also be driven to chase. Any dog who sees a small animal darting around their territory may show interest. That interest can potentially develop into a "game" or a prey-driven chase!
Can Dogs Be Trained Not to Chase?
The AKC also shares that "The desire to chase is inherent to many dogs and is a highly self-rewarding behavior, but because some dogs enjoy it so much, it can be extra challenging to train them not to do it." However, that doesn't mean all hope is lost. You can train your pet not to chase, especially when they're a puppy but also later in life with a bit more difficulty.
Leash training and motivating your pet with toys and treats during outdoor training opportunities is key to helping them learn to listen to you and ignore their urge to chase. Dog impulse training can be difficult because you're training them to ignore behavior that is coded into their DNA, but by refocusing that innate desire to a more productive activity your dog can fuel their desire to chase in a safer way.
How to Keep Chasing Dogs Safe
While you're learning to train your dog to avoid chasing small animals, here are a few tips to keep them safe:
Always keep them on a leash when walking them in public: If they tend to have a mind of their own, keep a short leash to avoid them being able to get a running start and potentially harming themselves or pulling you down.
Use a harness to attach your leash to: Harnesses are great because they don't put pressure on your dog's neck and throat if they pull. It wraps around more of their body to also give you more control in redirecting their attention.
Block all exit routes: While it may be hard to keep squirrels and other small critters out of your backyard, make sure that if you let your dog out to run around on their own that there aren't any potential breaks in the fence or places they could easily jump over.
Keep a watchful eye: While most small critters aren't known for fighting back when they feel threatened, they react. Pay close attention to your dog's behaviors after letting them out. Any sign of behavior changes that could indicate that they were attacked, is important to catch quickly. Any signs of bites, scratches, or other indications that your dog was attacked are worth calling your veterinarian immediately and getting their consult.
It’s difficult to train a dog to ignore small critters. You’re fighting against a deep-seated attraction to movement. However, if your dog’s fascination is causing behavioral issues, management techniques can be helpful. For example, don’t let your dog indulge the obsession. If you let your dog out in the yard at the first sight of a squirrel, squirrels will surely become a distraction your dog won’t ignore. Instead, reserve the yard for potty business and keep your dog on a leash while you work on impulse control and distraction training.
It’s also helpful to teach your dog to focus on cue with a phrase like “watch me.” Ask for eye contact before your dog notices the bird or bunny, and you will prevent your dog from becoming distracted in the first place. If your pup spots the animal before you do, try redirecting your dog’s attention with the “leave it” cue. Practice in low distraction environments before working up to rabbits and birds. Reward your dog with something super special when the cue works. You can even take advantage of the Premack Principle and use the critter as the reward by letting your dog return to watching the animal after looking away on cue.
When you’re dealing with animal distractions, don’t use cues you know your dog will ignore. That only teaches your dog that obeying cues is optional. For example, don’t call your dog to come if you know the squirrel in the tree will make that impossible. Go back to management until your cues are more reliable. Walk over to your dog and clip on the leash instead of letting your recall cue fall on distracted ears.
As long as you keep your dog safe, by not allowing them to get loose during a chase and train them well, you can rest assured that chasing is normal behavior for your dog. Just as not being bothered at all by squirrels is normal.
Always Essential Dogs and its Alwaysessentialdogs.com website and social media accounts provide general canine information for the express purpose of educating and entertaining readers. The information is provided for the sole purpose of enhancing the user’s knowledge and understanding of dogs. This information is in no way intended to be used to diagnose, direct treatment for, or as a prognosis of any health condition of any animal and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining professional veterinary advice in a specific situation.
Never disregard veterinary advice or delay in seeking it. If your pet is showing any signs of distress or you suspect your pet is seriously ill, CONTACT YOUR VETERINARIAN immediately.