Friday, June 6, 2008

Chasing Squirrels

Here's another post from the vault. I promised a new client that I'd make this available again; her dog has an obsession with horses. It's much stronger than Freddie's fascination was with squirrels, but the principle still holds true: when you make yourself more relevant to your dog's prey drive, he'll be happy to give up whatever "prey" he's obsessed with, particularly if you let him finish the predatory sequence by biting a toy. It's really that simple (which doesn't mean it's easy).

Chasing Squirrels
I mentioned in a previous post the need to take charge of the dog’s emotional charge. You want to do this without attempting to become some mythical pack leader, of course (though Cesar Millan seems to be making a good living doing it). I’ve described this process in my work with Boomer, but another excellent example comes from my own dog, Fred, who used to love to chase squirrels in Central Park. At the time he was still having panic attacks on the streets, but was entirely calm in the park. In fact, I’d been trying to find a way to get him to play tug and fetch outdoors in order to cure those panic attacks, but his only way of expressing his prey drive was by stalking and chasing squirrels. Understand, I wasn’t as concerned with the fact that he was chasing squirrels; they were always too fast for him to actually catch. I was more concerned that he ignored me completely when he went into hunting mode. His attitude was, “I know you’re going the other direction. Don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up when I’m done here...”

So, one day I took some juicy pieces of chicken breast to the park. When Freddie spotted a squirrel and began stalking it—which he did by freezing, like a setter or pointer—I walked over and put the chicken in front of his nose to distract him; to try to get him to pay attention to me (or at least the chicken) and not the squirrel. He just ignored it. In fact, he kept moving his head around because my hand was blocking his line of sight. So I finally put it right into his mouth (which was open slightly). He let that juicy slice of chicken just sit right on top of his tongue for about half a second, then dropped it — ptaahh — onto the ground, keeping his eyes on the squirrel the whole time.

I was stumped. If I couldn’t distract him by putting a piece of chicken right into his mouth, how could I get his attention? Then it hit me: I would hunt squirrels with him. Maybe that would also solve my other problem; how to get Fred to share his prey drive with me. So, I put the chicken in my pocket, and later, while Freddie was sniffing around, I spotted another squirrel, one that he hadn’t seen yet himself.

In a hushed, highly emotionally charged voice I whispered, “There he is!” and began stalking the squirrel myself.

Freddie eventually picked up on my mood, and when he did, he saw the squirrel too, and dropped into his stalking stance. We were now hunting together. Fred didn’t know it yet, but I was now in control of the game.

We did this for a few days, then I added a new twist. We’d stalk a squirrel together but at some point, I’d make a quick move toward the squirrel, motivating it to run up the nearest tree. This always set Freddie racing off after the the little critter. While he did that, I'd pick up a stick, hoot excitedly and run away, waving it for Freddie to see.

Freddie would then be forced to choose between chasing the squirrel, and then circling the tree to no avail, or chasing me and the stick. In the beginning he always went immediately for the squirrel. But the thing is, the squirrels always went up a tree, leaving Freddie with nothing to sink his teeth into. That’s the critical thing here.

Meanwhile, I was still enticing him with a stick. Once he started to come toward me, Id shout, Freddie, come! (while he was already running toward me). Then, once he got to me, Id invite him to jump up on me and play tug-of-war. I either let him win, or, if he lost his grip, I immediately threw the stick for him to chase, which he did with the same intensity, more or less, that he had for chasing the squirrel. Once the stick was in Freddie’s mouth and he was able to lie down in the grass and crunch down on it with his jaws and kill it, he was truly satisfied. He never got that satisfaction from chasing squirrels because he never got a chance to bite one. After just a few weeks of following these steps, whenever Freddie saw a squirrel, all I had to do was whistle, or say, Freddie, come! and he’d immediately turn and run back to me for a game of fetch.

Of course, from the traditional standpoint, everything I did to change Freddie’s behavior was wrong:

1.) I encouraged him to chase squirrels, which squirrel-lovers disapproved of (I told them it was just a squirrel aerobics class)

2.) I encouraged him to jump up on me, and

3.) I was not only playing tug-of-war with him, I was letting him win!

These were all huge no-nos in the dog training world at the time. But doing each of these things helped me take charge of Freddie’s emotional energy. That was the whole point.

Here’s how and why it worked: when Freddie saw a squirrel he became filled with an emotional charge. He was so charged up in fact that nothing could get his attention away from his intended prey, not even a juicy piece of chicken sitting on his tongue! By immersing (or pretending to immerse) myself in the same emotions that he was feeling, I created a dynamic, magnetic charge between us. Then, by getting him to jump up on me and play tug-of-war, I decreased his resistance to my position as a vertical being and gave him the satisfaction of crunching something with his teeth.

It also helped that Freddie’s m.o. in hunting squirrels was to stalk them; to try to sneak up as close as he could. Then, when they started to run towards the nearest tree, he’d give chase. If he’d been an instant chaser like some dogs, this wouldn’t have worked.

Now, I’m not recommending that you chase squirrels with your dog. It just happened to work with Freddie due to a number of contributing factors that I was aware of at the time, and that you might not be with your dog. What I am recommending is that you find a way to take charge of your dog’s emotional energy, not so that you can always be in control of everything the dog does, but so that the dog can be in control of his own behavior, and doesn’t need you to constantly be telling him what to do (which is something some people seem to enjoy).

Here’s the thing: if you don’t have “willing” squirrels as your guinea pigs when teaching your dog to re-direct her energy into something safe to bite, and especially if your dog is more apt to go after children or skateboarders or other dogs, you have got, got, got to be able to get her addicted to tug before you put her in a situation where she’s going to come up against her biggest bite-temptation. Squirrels are wily and can run up trees. They’re safe (more or less). Kids and skateboarders and other dogs don’t have as easy a time escaping those teeth. So work on the pushing exercise first, then work on redirecting your dog’s energy into a game of tug, or just on heeling, or jumping up on command. 

The more you do that, the less tempting these other things will be.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"


Ben said...

Love this post-- Indy had been corrected so many times for showing interest in squirrels that they could literally walk up to his nose while he was on lead and he would not react.

The day I started "hunting" with him there was this incredible change. He felt (and acted) free. It is an absolutely beautiful moment to see a dog in a pure state like that when it had been repressed for so long.

LCK said...

Interesting. I guess since I never scolded or tried to "correct" Fred for his squirrel fetish, he didn't have anything like that kind of reaction. To him it was more just a matter of, "Oh, okay. I guess this is interesting too..."

It wasn't until I fasted him for two days and got him mesmerized by a tennis ball that his whole world changed, his panic attacks disappeared, and he finally felt centered, happy, and at ease with himself (and with me).

But that's another story...


Frances Kuffel said...

Does this game work with old people? Daisy and Boomer managed to bring one to the ground this morning.

LCK said...

That's unfortunate.

And as I said on the blog, you don't want to use innocent victims as training "bait" the way I used the Central Park squirrels when working with Freddie.

On the other hand, if either Daisy or Boomer were to show an unnatural interest in anyone or anything, my hope is that you'd be able to instantly redirect their energy into a tennis ball or tug toy instead. The more a dog bites in play the less chance his or her teeth and/or paws, body mass, energy, vocal skills, etc., will have of finding their aim drifting toward unwanted targets.

I hope no one was seriously hurt.


Frances Kuffel said...

Hey, Lee --

Would you give some tips about how much exercise of what kind is OK when it's 95 degrees & humid outside?

I mean, obviously if we lived on a lake...which we don't...

LCK said...

I'd say minimal to none. Walk, pee, walk, poop. Walk home and crash.

Always walk your dogs on the shady side of the street, carry a cold sphritz bottle to squirt on their necks from time to time.

If you've got a big space with a strong air-conditioner, and don't mind the dogs tearing up the place, I wouldn't try to convince you not to let them.

Mannnn, it's hot!




Anonymous said...

How would you work with the dog differently if he was intent on stalking and chasing children?

LCK said...

Today I would actually work with any dog differently. Back then (which was about 15 years ago), I thought Freddie wasn't interested in playing tug-of-war, and I just let it go at that. Now getting him to play tug would be my first priority. Remember, Freddie was having panic attacks on the streets, and I'd been told by Kevin Behan that in order to cure his panic attacks I had to get him to play either tug or fetch with all his might outdoors. So part of my rationale for stalking squirrels with him was that I had a pretty good idea I could get him to play tug with me after a squirrel ran up the nearest tree.

But now I know there are other ways to get a dog interested in playing tug and fetch. Still, even though I kind of went about things backwards, I also know now that if I had a dog in a similar situation that you seem to be in, and I got him to love playing tug with me outdoors, and got him to bite down hard on the tug rag, I would very quickly be able to get to the same place it took me 2 wks. or so to get to with Freddie: whenever he saw a squirrel all I had to do was pick up a stick and he'd come running to me. I didn't even have to call him. With a dog I was working with now, I wouldn't use a stick; I'd just make sure to always carry a tug rag with me. And if the dog saw some kids running by, I'd just give him some sort of signal, wave the tug rag at him, and run away (he'd be on leash, of course). Once he chased me for a bit, and was jumping up at the tug rag, I'd stop and play tug with him really hard.

The other part of what I was doing with Freddie, by the way, is I was addressing a dog's most pressing problem, which was certainly true of Freddie, and is true of most of the dogs I see as a trainer. That problem is: what do I do with my predatory emotions; where's the best outlet for them? And in most cases the reason that the dog HAS this problem is that the owner hasn't opened a channel to be part of that kind of experience with the dog, i.e., the dog doesn't feel comfortable sharing his predatory emotions with his owner.

So if your dog has an unhealthy interest in stalking and chasing kids the first thing I'd do, if I were you, is teach him to play tug outdoors, and do it with all his might.

I hope this helps,


Anonymous said...

thanks for the response. In this instance it was a friend's dog and I just had him work with the dog "supervised" and play a game of fetch with a few of the neighborhood kids that he had previously stalked, chased and nipped. In this case the dog learned to associate a more favorable game with the kids and the stalking and chasing stopped.

However, I think the concept is similar in that we were rechanneling the dog's cursorial instincts.

LCK said...

I'm glad it worked, but it didn't work for the reason you stated.

In other words, the dog didn't learn to associate the game of fetch with being around the kids. What actually happens in a case like this is that the dog's internal need to express his prey drive -- which is felt by the dog as a kind of emotional pressure -- was directed into the game, which had the ultimate payoff for him of biting the toy. As a result the internal pressure was lifted, and the kids were no longer as attractive to his instincts or seen as potential prey by him. If anything the dog's desire to stalk (and possibly chase and bite) the kids was simply transferred to something that was more satisfying.

The way I see it, there's no mental association going on there at all.


Anonymous said...

that's your opinion based on your experience and interpretation of my description. Not a statement of fact.

When this dog now sees the neighborhood kids, he picks up the ball and brings it to them wanting to initiate a game of fetch. As I said we refocused his natural instinct to stalk, chase and bite the kids to the game of fetch.

Yes a more satisfying outlet for his prey drive but definitely a behavior associated with the kids new interaction and relatinship with him. So yes there is considerable association going on here.

LCK said...

LCK: The way I see it, there's no mental association going on there at all.

Anon: that's your opinion based on your experience and interpretation of my description. Not a statement of fact.

I didn't say it was. I said that's "the way I see it."

Anon: we refocused his natural instinct to stalk, chase and bite the kids to the game of fetch.

That's great.

Anon: So yes there is considerable association going on here.

How do you know that? How does any dog make such an association? What is the cognitive process? What parts of the brain does the dog use to process information in such a way?

Isn't more probable that he just feels a satisfying reduction in emotional tension that he never got to experience when he was stalking the kids? And isn't it possible that he's simply attracted -- energetically and emotionally -- to them now in a new, more satisfying because in his previous state of attraction he never get the chance to bite his "prey," but now he does?

It seems that you're the one who's trying to fob off something which to me is highly illogical as "fact."

But regardless of our intellectual squabble, it's good to know that you were able to successfully redirect this dog's urge to bite into a tennis ball rather than the kids. That's what's really important.


Anonymous said...

Come on who are you trying to fool?

All you are doing is restating what I said but in new age Kevin Behan obfuscative attempt at psychobabble.

It's scary that you actually believe what you are writing and people actually buy into that crap?

LCK said...

I'm sorry, I'm not sure what your problem is. But look for an entire article (coming soon) on the difference between a) reducing a dog's internal tension as opposed to b) creating positive mental associations.

I'm not sure you'll be able to understand it*, but hopefully you'll get something out of it. Who knows?


*Your use of the words "new age obfuscative psychobabble" indicates that you're a) not using language with the kind of exactitude that would engender clarity, b) you're falling back on cliche rather than saying anything truly original, and c) you have a bit of a bug up your ass. Why, I'm not sure.

What exactly are you afraid of?

Anonymous said...

I love this "Chasing Squirrels" entry! I am the Assistant Squirrel Chaser, (a self inflicted title), to my two year old standard poodle Mattie. It started when she would dart from tree to tree in a frenzy in the back yard for what seemed like hours looking, waiting, chasing the one lone squirrel. Watching this and (shoot me for) enjoying it; the grace and agility of a flying poodle (think Mikhail Baryshnikov when he was young) over shrubs and vines to follow her "prey", I noticed that this squirrel was very clever. Mattie needed some human brain assistance to help spot the squirrel and anticipate the direction he was headed. The squirrel would play hide and seek with Mattie. And sneak to a tree BEHIND the the dog. She still staring, waiting, .... "barking up the wrong tree". The squirrel would chew a small branch and when it fell on her head she would do a crazy 360 in the air. So I stepped in and just like you described, I elevate my voice with an energetic "Look, It's over here" or "There it is quick". We both love this. I suppose I should buy a tug-of-war rope toy and redirect the fun but I must say this squirrel chasing business makes me feel like the dog and I are enjoying working together, a kind of bonding. Tug of war (dirty socks she search-and-rescue-s from the laundry bin) with Mattie is fun for about two minutes because she always let's me "win" by letting go.

E. Vahlsing, California

LCK said...

Thanks, V.

Your description is very funny, I'm still chuckling. But I think you're right, you need to take Mattie to the next step. After all, the only reason I did this with Freddie was to get him to STOP chasing squirrels. That's the most important of this exercise. Besides, you're leaving Mattie in an unsatisfied state if you don't plug her energy into a tug toy.

There are several ways to get her more into the game. I think you'll find a good article about this on Neil Sattin's blog. Here's the link:

Thanks for stopping by!

Best of luck,


Unknown said...

I will sing Sinatra songs outloud the day Lou is only tempted to chase squirrels instead of kids.

As you know, I've seen tug work with Lou, when he tugged after chasing Basil. However, he has no interest really in playing tug regularly and the Basil thing was unusual. I do push/heel/down/stay/come/speak with him for both meals every day. But he won't fetch or tug if I have food. And when the food is gone he's "done".

Yet he has a very strong bite instinct and I think it's important for him to be biting toys.

Any suggestions?

LCK said...

There are several ways to get Lou over the hump. One is to get him to chase you. Another is to tie him up when he's very, very hungry, then walk away, and ignore him until he's straining at the lead to make contact with you. THEN get him to chase you.

Also read "Jump Starting the Prey Drive," and "Managing Your Dog's Energy."

Have you read Kevin's book, NATURAL DOG TRAINING?


Unknown said...

Oh gosh Lou will chase me. I'll run around acting crazy and the second I stop he stops and just looks at me.

If Lou gets fed a few hours late he starts throwing up stomach bile. He's at 90% of his IBW so I hate to fast him. He is insanely food motivated anyway.

Twice he's tugged outside with me -once w/ Basil. Earlier, on the first warm day we opened the windows in the house and let in all the smells and sounds that trigger Lou...he barked for 8 straight hours. I'd had ENOUGH so I took him to a field to push/play. I put him in a sit and took off running he bolted after me like demon out of hell and grabbed and tugged like crazy.

Apparently he needs to REALLY be worked up to tug with me. I can't get him that worked up,yet.

Now sometimes when he gets the "zoomies" he will play fetch tug with me INSIDE but he growls a lot or lays down to tug and I let him win...

Today I took him and Rudy to a field. Lou hadn't had breakfast. I tied Lou up and exercised and played with Rudy in front of him. He barked twice at diesel trucks and then just sat and watched us. Of course, before we started pushing he would have acted like a maniac if I'd done that...

After exercising Rudy I grabbed some of Lou's food and left him tied up and ran around getting him to bark at me. He still won't give me a really good bark but he does some barkng. Then I set him free and took off running w/ a tug toy. He chased me and only sniffed the toy... He wanted food. I didn't give him any.

Right now he is back in his crate without any food and not much exercise. He's barking. I'm going to wait till later and try to use the golfers coming by to get him worked up enough to tug. Too bad most parents don't want me to use thier kids as "bait" for Lou...that would would GREAT! LOL

I have ordered Behan's book and read both of the posts you mentioned.

lili said...

Hi Lee,

I am new to your blog and love this post!!! I have a squirrel-obsessed dog and like yours, he has no interest in food when he is magnetized by a squirrel. He completely ignores me.

Funny, I too have started "hunting" squirrels with him but then things come to a stop, he is transfixed at the foot of the tree and I literally have to pick him up and carry him off the street or we could be stuck there all day while he waits for the squirrel to reappear. His recall is 80% good but NEVER when squirrels are involved.


I'd like to try your suggestion of throwing a stick or toy to redirect his energy but... two problems that I am anticipating are:
1. What if the squirrel is still more interesting than the toy?
2. Can this be done with him on-leash? I can't let him off-leash...

BTW, I am also new to the "Natural Dog Training" concept and have been reading your and Neil Sattin's blog articles with great interest. I have been working with a R+ trainer, and before that, with a Dominance trainer (things didn't go so well) so your model of dog training - which I didn't know existed until yesterday - is totally new and fascinating to me.

I'm curious - have you heard of BAT?

This is a training protocol for aggression that I've been doing with my dog and it's very much based on keeping the dog under-threshold, working with calming signals and negative reinforcement. The main reward is not food but distance from the trigger, which reduces stress.I am curious what you think because I get the impression that 'Natural Dog Training' is based on -R (the "stress release" theory).?

P.S. I have also ordered one of your novels - "Like A Dog With A Bone" - look forward to reading this.

LCK said...

Hi Lili,

Welcome to the world of Natural Dog Training!

You bring up some interesting points and questions. I recommend that you read some of the articles in my "Unified Dog Theory" series at

Just google "Unified Dog Theory" and you'll be directed to a number of these articles (there are 13 so far).

The point of my "Chasing Squirrels" article was not to give people an idea on how to keep their own dogs from chasing squirrels (as I state in the article, it only works with dogs who stalk 1st & chase 2nd), but to show that the most common ideas about how dogs learn -- through dominance or positive reinforcement -- are missing a big piece of the picture.

It sounds to me like the trick with your dog is going to be to find ways to make yourself more interesting to the doggie than the squirrels are. That's what I did with Freddie.

So the key isn't that I hunted squirrels with Fred, but that he never got to bite the squirrels, while he did get to bite the stick I teased him with after the squirrels went up a tree. And since I was the one "animating" the stick, that made me more interesting than the squirrels in the long run.

I hope this helps!


Lili said...

Hi Lee, my dog does in fact "stalk" first, then chase. He goes into that slow crouched stalking mode even when there are no squirrels around (but if he has seen a squirrel in this same location weeks ago).

Thanks. I will go and check out those articles.

suZwiL said...

Have been devouring your blog and bought Neil's DVD.
Question regarding early comment of yours "it wasn't until I fasted him for two days and got him mesmerized by a tennis ball that his whole world changed, his panic attacks disappeared, and he finally felt centered, happy, and at ease with himself (and with me).

But that's another story..."
Do you tell this story somewhere...
Thanks for all the info that you provide.

LCK said...

I don't tell that story anywhere, but the technique can be found in Kevin's book, Natural Dog Training.