When we got our first house, my small, 13-pound dog immediately fell in love with the backyard, mostly because of the squirrels. Obviously, our dogs love to chase and play fetch, because it satisfies their predator instincts and its great exercise, but it made me nervous when the chasing started to involve another living creature.
Those playful critters would show up in our tree or along our back wall and she would chase them tirelessly. However, I started to become concerned with the squirrels got... bolder. They started playing games, taunting my pup. They would crawl down into the yard, so she could chase them, then they'd dart up the wall right at the last second to escape her. But it got me thinking, what if the squirrel misses? What if they make just the wrong move, and they aren't able to dart away? What if my dog catches the squirrel?
I spoke with professional trainer Olivia Healy, CPDT-KA, FFCP, who is the the co-owner of Clickstart Dog Training Academy, to understand what to do if our dog does catch a squirrel.
Why do dogs chase squirrels?
First of all, what causes our dogs to want to chase squirrels? It's not like they need food—we give them plenty of food (and let's be honest, treats). But their hunting instincts go back much further than that. Our dogs hunt because we bred them that way. Olivia Healy explains: "Of course, every dog is an individual, but many dogs love to chase critters largely because we selected for those traits on purpose through breeding programs! Most dogs will exhibit some inhibited portion of the predatory sequence of behavior, which includes: see, stalk, chase, catch, bite, kill, dissect, and consume."
Historically, we needed our dogs to chase and kill critters in the house or around the farm, so we helped to breed dogs that would do just that. However, these days, we would prefer they didn't do any actual hunting, lest they hurt themselves or the critter.
My dog just caught a squirrel, what do I do?
If your dog's instincts take over and you find them with a squirrel in their jaws, there are some steps you can take to immediately help the situation and get your dog to drop the critter. Healy suggests several simple steps to try and get your dog away from the squirrel:
Use commands or cues your dog already knows. This is where earlier training might help. Says Healy, "If you have any cues to fall back on, like drop it, leave it, come here, etc, now is the time to pull those out!" However, Healy cautions, these commands may not work with the intensity and distraction in this situation.
Try to grab their attention with treats. If your dog loves treats, "you could try a hasty 'treat trade' by dumping a generous handful of food on the floor, or even tossing it directly into your dog's face," Healy says. Since many dogs can't resist their favorite snacks, the hope is that they will be excited enough to drop the squirrel.
"As a final resort, you can try making a loud sound to startle your dog into dropping the squirrel." Sometimes, we have to resort to drastic measures. Healy suggests banging empty food dishes, blowing an airhorn or knocking a chair over to startle your dog, or you could try spraying water into the air to land on your dog. "These aren't the kindest interventions for your pup," Healy cautions, "but in an emergency we want to keep everyone safe."
What not to do if your dog catches a squirrel
Even though the situation may be scary, Healy urges us not to grab our dog by the collar, try to pry their jaws open, or attempt to grab the squirrel:"There is an excellent chance you could be bitten by your dog or the squirrel in the process!"
How can I be prepared in advance in case my dog catches a squirrel?
Obviously, none of us expect to find our dog with a squirrel in its mouth, but there are some ways that we can be prepared just in case. Healy suggests the handy phrase ACT ("always carry treats") so we have something to distract our dogs. They also emphasize how important it is to keep your dog on a leash (even a long leash) when out at the park or somewhere that the dog might chase squirrels.
What can I do to train my dog not to attack other animals?
You can also train your dog ahead of time to be less reactive to stimuli like squirrels. One of Healy's favorite training games is called Engage-Disengage.
Stage one is engage: look at the squirrel. Healy explains, "We want to find that magical threshold where our dog notices the squirrel far away, but isn't barking, whining, or pulling towards them yet." When your dog sees the squirrel, click your clicker (or say "yes") and feed them a tasty treat. This teaches dogs to expect a treat whenever it sees a squirrel.
Stage two is disengage: look away from the squirrel and back at you. After your dog gets really good at stage one, try to get them to look at you before you click. Wait for them to see the squirrel, and then wait for them to look at you before you click the clicker and give them a treat. With this game, your dog starts to look happily at you (expecting a treat) when they see a squirrel.
While we obviously don't want our dogs catching a squirrel, if they do end up with one, you'll need to act fast. Try to distract your dog with commands, delicious treats or loud noises to diffuse the situation. And if you notice your dog getting too close to squirrels, additional training can help. The goal is always to keep your pets and other critters as safe as possible.