Oftentimes, there’s no quicker way to get a dog’s attention than a squirrel sneaking through the yard. Many dogs love squirrels, birds, rabbits, and other small creatures. Patrolling the backyard for their presence is a favorite pastime. In fact, small animals are one of the most difficult training distractions.
But why are dogs so fascinated by birds and other creatures? Sure, cardinals are beautiful and bunnies are cute, but that doesn’t explain your dog’s captivity. It is the predatory heritage of his pet that is to blame. Although it’s hard to counter the instinct, there are ways to manage your dog’s obsession and even make it work for you.
Predatory inheritance of dogs
More than 14,000 years ago there were no dogs. But there were wolves that lived near human settlements. These friendly wolves eventually evolved into the first dogs. That means dogs today, despite all of our efforts to breed them for various purposes, still retain some of that wolf heritage. And of course wolves are predators, they chase and kill other creatures to survive.
Therefore, dogs share the predatory behavior sequence of wolves. The entire sequence includes spotting prey, then stalking it, chasing it, attacking it, and finally consuming it. Not all races show the full sequence. The original purpose of a dog can affect which parts of the sequence remain.
For example, Sporting Group breeds like the Labrador Retriever were developed to search for fallen birds for the hunter. They were bred to return those birds in one piece, instead of attacking or eating them. And herding group breeds like the Border Collie tend to exhibit the early parts of the sequence more strongly. However, the key to all races is what triggers the predatory sequence in the first place: movement.
In fact, a dog’s vision is programmed for movement. Although dogs lack full color vision and have poor detail resolution, the structure of their eyes makes them extremely sensitive to everything that moves. No wonder they are fascinated by all the creatures that run and fly around the backyard.
It is difficult to train a dog to ignore small critters. You are fighting a deep-seated attraction to movement. However, if your dog’s fascination is causing behavior problems, management techniques may be helpful. For example, don’t let your dog indulge in obsession. If you let your dog out into the yard upon first seeing a squirrel, the squirrels are sure to become a distraction your dog won’t ignore. Instead, reserve the yard for potty training and keep your dog on a leash while you work on impulse control and distraction training.
Teaching your dog to focus on the cue with a phrase like “look at me” is also helpful. Ask for eye contact before your dog notices the bird or bunny, and you’ll prevent your dog from being distracted in the first place. If your pup sees the animal before you do, try redirecting your dog’s attention with the “leave” signal. Practice in low-distraction settings before working with rabbits and birds. Reward your dog with something super special when the signal works. You can even take advantage of Premack’s principle and use the creature as a reward by allowing your dog to look back at the animal after looking away at just the right time.
When it comes to animal distractions, don’t use signals that you know your dog will ignore. That just teaches your dog that obeying signals is optional. For example, don’t call your dog over if he knows the squirrel in the tree will make it impossible. Go back to management until signals from him are more reliable. Walk up to your dog and hold on to the leash instead of letting his reminder cue fall on distracted ears.
Channeling Creature Obsessed Instincts
Instead of fighting your dog’s heritage, consider taking advantage of it in a more acceptable way. After all, dogs are so much fun to play with because of their love of movement. Games like chase, fetch, and frisbee build on your dog’s predatory drive. Scoop out a ball or let your dog chase you for some instinctive fun. Essentially, you are substituting yourself or a toy for the animal prey.
Dog sports are another great way to let your dog enjoy the legacy of the wolf. Earthdog (open to small terriers and Dachshunds) and Barn Hunt (open to any dog that can fit through a high tunnel 18″ wide by bale height) let your dog hunt real game. At Earthdog, dogs explore underground tunnels, and in Barn Hunt, they work through a maze of bales of straw or hay.In both sports, the prey, usually rats, are kept safely behind bars or in aerated tubes.
There are other sports that use artificial holds. In CAT (Coursing Ability Test), dogs chase a false lure on a course and must finish within a set time limit. CAT and FastCAT are great for beginners and open to any purebred or mixed breed dog. Lure Coursing, open only to Sighthounds, has dogs that chase a white artificial lure around a 600- to 800-yard course. Both sports take advantage of those predatory instincts, even if the prey is a moving piece of plastic.
Finally, for the ball or frisbee obsessed dogs, there’s Flyball and Disc Dog to try. Flyball involves a team of dogs jumping over obstacles and catching tennis balls. Disc Dog involves a series of fetch games involving a flying disc. Both sports are open to dogs of all breeds and mixes.
From throwing a tennis ball to organized dog sports, there are plenty of ways to have fun with your dog’s predatory heritage. Keep the squirrels safe and let your dog tap into those instincts with you.
Do you need help training your dog? While he may not be able to attend in-person training classes during COVID-19, we’re here to help virtually through AKC GoodDog! Helpline. This live phone service connects you with a professional trainer who will offer unlimited, individualized advice on everything from behavior issues to CGC preparation to getting started in dog sports.