Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my!

It was the wee hours of the morning before I got a chance to walk my dogs. I had finally finished a couple of large writing projects whose deadlines had been breathing down my neck and was enjoying the warm night. The moon was nearly full, and the sky was sprinkled with stars. My dogs snuffled about in the grass and wandered about together on long, loose leashes as we walked through the park, and I took a deep breath and enjoyed the perfection of the moment.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

Mischief is always on the lookout for critters. Photo by SC Studios.

The stillness was shattered by Mischief’s yodeling “BAROOOOO” as a young rabbit bolted right in front of her. Layla immediately swung into heel position, staring lasers at me in the hopes that I would give her permission to chase after the little bunny. Dobby yipped twice, then remembered himself and offered a sit.

Mischief, however, did not look at me, or swing into heel position, or even sit. Instead, she strained at the end of her leash, baying like a Bloodhound. Her cries echoed in the park, and I cringed, feeling guilty that my dog was being so noisy when the neighbors were trying to sleep.

Heedless to anything but the quickly disappearing rabbit, Mischief continued to yodel until I picked her up, thirty pounds of squirmy adolescent pup determined to escape the confines of her leash and give chase. Holding her firmly, I praised the other dogs and asked them to “leave it” as we walked in the opposite direction the bunny had run. Layla gave the departing rabbit one last wistful look, then huffed and bumped my pocket with her nose, hinting that good dogs should be rewarded. I handed treats to her and Dobby, and after several steps was able to set Mischief down again without her resuming her cacophonous protest. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds, and I hoped that my quick action had prevented my puppy from disturbing anyone’s slumber.

Photo by ap. on flickr

Photo by ap. on flickr

Squirrels and rabbits are one of the most difficult distractions many people deal with on walks. Dogs love to chase, and there’s something about that quickly-departing fluffy tail that makes many dogs completely out of control. The more predatory the dog, the more difficult this can be to deal with. When Layla was younger, she broke through collars and climbed me like a tree in her attempts to catch small critters, and to this day she regularly kills and consumes birds, chipmunks, and other small animals in my little fenced backyard. My clients have been pulled over and injured when their dogs decided to give chase, and many have expressed frustration that their dog doesn’t even care about food or toys when a squirrel is in sight. Some people turn to electronic collars to control their dog’s prey drive, but many others (myself included) do not believe in the use of these tools due to the potential for fallout and lack of proof that they are any more effective than reward-based training.

So, what can we do to control our dogs around rabbits, squirrels, and other small critters?

Enter Premack. The Premack Principle states that a less likely behavior can be reinforced with a more likely behavior. In plain English, that means that we can use something our dog is already likely to do (such as chasing squirrels) as a reward for something that they’re less likely to do in that same situation (such as looking at us). Here’s how it works.

In the beginning stages, we need to make sure that you can control your dog so that he only gets a chance to chase squirrels when you give him permission to do so. Keeping your dog on leash is a great way to manage this, and you can add in a front-attach harness (I use the Freedom harness for Mischief) or a head halter (such as the Gentle Leader) for more control if your dog is especially quick or powerful.

Now we need to figure out what your dog can actually offer at this stage of training. With Mischief, she has a great whiplash turn where she turns her head as soon as I say her name, so I used this. In the case of a more predatory dog, such as Layla, I had to start with accepting even a tiny head turn, sometimes just an inch in my direction. Start with what you can get.

The training is simple. Walk your dog somewhere where you will see squirrels or bunnies. When your dog sees one, stand still and wait for them to offer a behavior you like, or cue them to do whichever behavior you’ve decided on. In Mischief’s case, I say her name as soon as she sees a small critter she wants to chase.

As soon as your dog offers the behavior you’ve decided on, reward them with the opportunity to chase. In Layla’s case, turning her head an inch in my direction caused me to click my clicker and take several steps in the direction of the bunny or squirrel. For Mischief, who is still a fairly predatory dog but who is not as tightly wound as Layla, I say her name, click when she turns towards me, then run after the squirrel or bunny with her. In both dogs’ cases, I keep them on leash and allow them to chase with me holding onto the leash for safety. This may not be as satisfying to them as chasing off-leash would be, but it’s safer in an urban environment with cars and other hazards and still satisfies them enough that they are willing to work for the opportunity.

In the beginning stages, it can be very difficult for a dog to switch from their instinctive predatory behaviors to more operant learned behaviors, like looking at you. It would often take Layla several minutes to turn her head even the tiniest bit away from the critter, so I had to be very still and quiet as she worked through the problem. Be patient and wait for a behavior you like, then click and move towards the critter. If your dog is absolutely out of control, you can either back away and try this from a greater distance (such as a block or two away), or you can wait for a tiny break in their frenzy (such as when they take a breath) and click that. I prefer to back away because I don’t want my dogs practicing such over-the-top behavior, but know other trainers who have had a lot of success with the latter method as well. Do what makes the most sense for you and your dog.

With Mischief, I started taking her on walks separate from the other dogs so we could work through this problem. As soon as she saw a critter, I would stop moving and wait for her to look at me. If she looked like she was getting more wound up and was going to start yodeling, I would say her name once, which always caused her to swing her head in my direction. Regardless of whether she remembered to look at me or I had to remind her, as soon as she looked in my direction I would click and tell her “get it!,” running in the direction of the critter.

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Photo by Davide Simonetti

Like most dogs, Mischief loves this game! She understands that by working together with me she can earn the chance to do what she wants. She began offering to look at me when she saw a small critter, clearly testing the premise to see whether the rules applied in all sorts of different situations. They usually did, although in unsafe situations or with animals I didn’t want her to chase I would tell her to “leave it” and reward her for her cooperation by letting her play a chase game as I ran in the opposite direction. She didn’t like this quite as much, but was willing to work with me.

Mischief’s training just started last week, so it’s still a work in progress. That said, I can report that walks are already much more peaceful, and there hasn’t been any yodeling since the one late night incident at the park. Even better, she’s learning that paying attention to me pays off, even in really distracting situations. Instead of fighting her, I’m teaching her to cooperate and become a better partner. All of this is happening without electric shocks, verbal reprimands, or any sort of force. It’s also mostly happening without the use of food rewards (although I do give her little pieces of food after a chase game when I ask her to “leave it,” since that’s still tough for her).

At this point, I plan to continue walking Mischief separately from the other dogs until she’s a pro at the Premack game. Once she reliably chooses to look at me after spying a squirrel or rabbit, I’ll start walking her with one of my other dogs, and eventually begin walking the entire pack together again. Dobby and Layla already understand the rules of the game, so on future walks I will be able to play it with all three of them, waiting until all three dogs have offered a behavior (Layla offers to swing into heel position and hold eye contact, and Dobby offers a sit) before initiating a chase.

If I want to transfer these behaviors to off-leash hikes, I can do so by walking Mischief on a long leash for awhile. I’ll keep working on her recall, and reward recalls with the chance to chase small critters. This will eventually pay off as I’ll be able to call her off a chase if I need to, and once she’s reliable I can ditch the long leash and let her be completely free.

I’ve used this same technique to return sanity to walks for countless dogs and their people. Have you used the Premack principle in this way? How does your dog respond to little critters? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

8 responses to “Squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks, oh my!

  1. Interesting idea. Jack has stopped chasing things in the yard since he knows he will never catch them, and that’s kind of transferred to outside the yard with little training required. But coyotes are another matter…those he will still chase. Not sure if I can adapt this to coyote chasing.

  2. How would you choose to teach a dog not to chase anything? And stay happy :). I’am working on leave it for that, but I’m not sure if I will be able to get to the running critters with that. So far it’s working with stationary cats nearby :). It’s still a work in progress.

  3. Great info! I’m still working on the ‘come’ command.
    This chase thing would be hard with my border collies. They chase each other! Ha!

  4. This sounds good, but my problem is not with my dog wanting to chase furry critters, but her wanting to greet every other dog taking a walk. She loves other dogs and thinks we should stop and say hi to them all. She goes crazy, barking and carrying on. A real pain when other dog owners are not so friendly themselves. A lot of people think the gentle leader is a muzzle and are fearful.

  5. Thankfully, critters haven’t been much of a problem for any of my dogs, probably because in England – even in the countryside – there aren’t that many in sight (though I can tell when one of my dogs is “chasing” a particularly interesting scent trail).

    Sheep, on the other hand, may be a problem for Starr – at least for a little while; I plan to use the ultimate Premack with her for them – teaching her to herd. In the meantime, when we come across sheep I simply stand and wait until she’s no longer straining on her lead/long line (kept short, of course!), and then slowly walk up on them in such a way to move them towards where *I* want i.e. away from us.

  6. My dog Kosie is a Catahoula and it is instinctual for her to chase critters! She would chase squirrels and chipmunks all day if we had a yard for that. There was one incident when I was jogging with her, she took off down a hill to tree some squirrels and nearly took me with her (fortunately I was able to drop her leash and after she treed like 4 squirrels I called her back to me). Without actually knowing it I started using this technique. She caught on pretty quick and loves the opportunity to chase when it is granted to her for cooperative behaviors, i.e she offers a sit and/or eye contact. I would recommend this game for any high energy, intelligent, critter chasing dog!

  7. What a great post! With three northern breed mixes, we live by the law of the leash, and its an almost constant battle to keep them from following their natural instincts to chase everything and pull on the leash.

  8. How would you modify this technique for a dog that is hyper-focused on other dogs? I’m not sure how I would reward her for looking to me, since nothing will be nearly as good as running up to the other dog, but I can’t do that with all the strange dogs we meet since that would be crazy rude to them and their owners, and it seems like it would be less effective doing it with dogs that she already knows (though she pulls toward them, as well). She’s not at all interested in toys or fetch, and loses her food motivation pretty readily when there are other dogs to sniff. She’s very friendly, so approaching dogs isn’t an issue, I just don’t want to let her approach to the point that she wants to without permission, and at least for a while, she’d never be able to get close enough to get permission since she’ll fixate on dogs even after they’ve gone blocks away and disappeared around a corner.

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