The Squirrel Instinct is present in all dogs.
Dogs are predators, and all of them have some amount of prey drive.
Prey drive can differ significantly based on breed, upbringing, environment, and other factors.
The Squirrel Instinct often gets a lot of attention because a bushy tail dashing amongst branches on a tree can suddenly turn our normally placid dog into a Cujo.
Both my Shiba Inu and Siberian Husky have strong prey drive. My Sibe is a three legged dog and she is usually very good about looking before she leaps. However, when a squirrel is involved, all thoughts of safety fly from her head.
When in the throes of Squirrel Instinct, a dog will usually have no interest in food, listening to their owner’s verbal monologue, or even in their own well-being. Indeed they will have little interest in anything except their quarry.
For many years, natural selection has favored wolves and dogs with a strong Squirrel Instinct, so facing this particular challenge will not be easy.
Can the Squirrel Instinct be re-trained? re-directed? fixed in any way?
There are several options.
The one most commonly cited is to use a physical correction (aversive stimulus) to ‘snap the dog out of it‘. ‘It‘ refers to the obsessive, often unwavering and unblinking gaze that a dog holds for his bushy tailed nemesis.
Aversive based trainers often cite the Squirrel Situation as a common failure point of reward training. After all, the dog shows no interest in crummy reward cookies, so reward training must not work.
Instead, they advise owners to apply a physical correction to the dog, that according to them, causes no pain. Rather, it is just a touch that will magically transform the dog from Squirrel State back to Lassie State.
Does this magical ‘touch’ truly exist?
Certainly you may startle your dog by doing something unexpected. For example, if you suddenly shout ‘Squirrel!‘, most people will take notice.
Similarly, if you suddenly poke or tap your dog’s flank – he will be temporarily startled, which will give you an opportunity to remove him from the Squirrel Zone.
However, this no-pain magical touch only works if you almost never perform the action.
The startle reaction, also called the startle response, startle reflex or alarm reaction, is the response of mind and body to a sudden unexpected stimulus.
~~[ Wikipedia ]
If you keep repeating that magical touch, its magic will quickly dissipate. As a result, the magical touch concept is unreliable at best, and often only works in the extreme short-term.
Commonly used aversive training techniques such as leash corrections (leash jerks), finger pokes, muzzle slaps, and shock collars are not magical in nature. They work precisely because they deliver a pain stimulus to the dog, which may subsequently ‘snap the dog out of it‘. The stronger ‘it‘ is, the more pain must be applied.
In the case of Squirrel Instinct, a large pain stimulus is often necessary to trump what has been instilled by Nature over many years of survival and selection.
Is pain the only way to fix the Squirrel Problem?
Luckily for our dogs, that is not the case. There are several other less painful alternatives.
One of the keys to addressing the Squirrel Problem is through careful management. Stay vigilant while walking your dog, and interrupt him before he escalates his squirrel obsession.
As soon as you notice the dog fixating on something – quickly interrupt with a loud noise or body block and lead him away with the leash. Do not pull directly back on the leash, but move the dog to the side and away, as if in an arc.
The earlier you interrupt the dog, the easier it will be to remove him from the Squirrel Zone.
If you notice the squirrel before the dog does, just ask for his attention and move him past the Squirrel Zone.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
~~[ Henry de Bracton (English Jurist, b.1268) ]
The desensitization process will help to retrain a dog to use alternate and more human desirable behaviors when faced with a strong external stimulus (such as a moving squirrel).
The desensitization process is best performed in a more controlled environment – e.g. your backyard or a quiet neighborhood field. Pick an area where there are fewer distractions and where you can concentrate on the problematic stimulus.
In the beginning, expose your dog to only a very small amount of the problematic stimulus. In the case of the Squirrel Instinct, stand a far distance away from the Squirrel Zone – far enough away that your dog is calm and able to focus on you and on doing obedience exercises.
At this distance, get your dog to do some attention commands mixed with some regular obedience commands. If he does well, move one or two steps towards the Squirrel Zone and repeat. If your dog starts to fixate on the squirrel, you have moved forward too quickly. Move back and repeat the exercise.
This exercise teaches your dog to focus on you when faced with a ‘squirrel stimulus‘. If there are no squirrels readily available, you can get help from a friendly neighborhood cat or hamster.
Remember however that the Squirrel Instinct is a powerful thing.
While it is possible to desensitize your dog to a certain level of ‘Squirrel‘, it may not be possible to ensure perfect success. Instead, the Squirrel Instinct will still be present – but be muted – because your dog has learned that focusing on you in the presence of ‘Squirrel‘ is a very rewarding enterprise.
Incidentally, applying a pain stimulus does not magically remove the Squirrel Instinct either. In that case, the Squirrel Instinct is just suppressed by another stronger instinct – pain avoidance or fear of pain.
3. Set Your Dog Up for Success
If your dog has a strong prey drive, try and set him up for success during walks.
Carefully pick where you walk and avoid areas that are too high stimulus. If necessary, drive your dog to a nearby park or quiet school field. Do not expose your dog to more than he can handle.
Equipment such as the no-pull harness or a head halti can help with the training of certain dogs, while keeping both dog and human safe.
*Note – While dog training collars and other equipment may help in the training process, they are not a replacement for training. It is still necessary to carry on with desensitization and attention exercises.
Make sure to read the instructions carefully as incorrect use of any dog training equipment may cause injuries to the dog.
The no-pull harness was useful in training my Shiba Inu how to walk on a leash. My Shiba Inu is a small dog but he would pull very hard during walks and choke himself. The Shiba Inu breed has a short trachea, which makes them more susceptible to neck injuries. The harness was very helpful in this situation.
My Siberian Husky is a larger dog, with much more pulling power compared to my Shiba. It was difficult to control her pulling while using a harness. Therefore, I switched to using a head halti when taking my Siberian on long walks at the park. However, I continued with regular leash training on a flat collar while on shorter, neighborhood walks. Once her walking skills improved, I quickly switched everything over to a regular collar.
I am currently using the Premier Nylon Martingale Collar which I really like because it is great at preventing collar escapes.