Why Do Dogs Chase Squirrels?
January 25th, 2019. Last Updated March 21st, 2020
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It’s no secret that dogs love to chase squirrels, but how do we explain why?
And many times it’s not just squirrels, but any moving thing–trucks, humans, balloons, or Yuna’s personal favorite: geese.
Sometimes, a squirrel in a tree can be so distracting to some dogs that they seem to forget everything else happening around them. They won’t pay attention even if you’re enticing them with the juiciest piece of steak.
Have you ever wondered what it is about squirrels that makes your dog want to pounce? Why do dogs like to chase squirrels and just about anything that moves?
In this article, we’ll provide some answers to this and offer a few ways to curb this behavior.
Why Do Dogs Chase Squirrels? 3 Main Reasons
Let’s not forget. Cute as our furry friends are, they are hunters at heart.
Natural "Prey Drive"
By their very nature, dogs are prey-driven animals. Some dogs exhibit this prey drive more than others.
In general, dogs are extremely alert to the smells and sounds of things around them. When that thing happens to be a squirrel, many a dog’s first instinct is to pounce.
In fact, as this article outlines, the prey drive comes in five unique stages: the search, the eye-stalk, the chase, the grab bite, and the kill bite.
Different dogs have different levels of intensity for each of the stages.
Some dogs may not even exhibit all five stages. They simply enjoy the chase. In fact, some dogs will even let the squirrel escape if caught so the game of tag can continue!
The origins of this behavior can be easily explained if we look at the history of certain breeds. Many dogs were bred specifically to aid humans in tasks related to hunting.
For example, the Beagle is known for being a hunting dog. So much so that the term “beagling” refers to the hunting of hares!
Other breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, were originally bred to aid fishermen in retrieving fish and other waterfowl that escaped rope nets.
So in conclusion, dogs have pretty much been chasing down prey since the beginning of their existence. They are naturally drawn toward moving objects as part of their prey drive, so the desire to chase a squirrel around the park should hardly come as a surprise.
Strong Sense of Smell
In addition to the strong prey drive, our dogs are blessed with noses that are 1,000 to 10,000 to perhaps even 100,000 times stronger than our own.
The primary way in which our dogs interact with the world is through their sense of smell. This gives them the ability to sniff out their prey with pinpoint accuracy through the scents they leave behind.
Because squirrels often interact with foods, dead insects, and the like with their paws, they’re bound to pick up a number of strong scents that your dog has no trouble picking up.
Moreover, anything that smells even remotely like food such as a squirrel is sure to grab your dog’s attention.
I suppose such a strong nose is both a gift and a curse!
Chasing Is A Self-Rewarding Behavior
Why do dogs chase squirrels? Because they love chasing squirrels! Sound circular?
This really is the culmination of the previous two factors. A strong “prey drive,” combined with the strong sense of smell to realize those hunter instincts (as well as a generous serving of curiosity!), means that the desire to chase squirrels is essentially baked into your dog’s DNA.
We know, for example, that when dogs play fetch, they release serotonin (a “feel-good” hormone) as they exert themselves.
It’s easy to see similarities between a game of fetch and a rapid squirrel chase.
Thus, chasing becomes a self-rewarding loop! The more they chase, the more positive associations they form, and this repeats again and again and again.
Why Chasing Squirrels Can Be Problematic
The three factors explain why dogs chase squirrels, but as responsible dog owners, do we try to stop this behavior at all?
In my opinion, allowing a dog to chase after something every once in a while is okay and even desirable, given that it’s part of their doggy nature.
Every dog should have time to just be a dog. They deserve occasional rolls in the mud, sniffing to their snout’s desire, and yes, chasing squirrels.
However, I believe that you should be able to curb this behavior on command. Indeed, certain aspects of squirrel chasing really run contrary to traits and behaviors we seek in household pets.
We certainly do not want to think that our fur kids are aggressive, squirrel-slaughtering machines.
But beyond that, there are other reasons why squirrel chasing can be problematic.
One big concern is safety. Squirrels dash around quickly and nimbly, and dogs stubbornly try to keep up.
It doesn’t matter if your dog is at the park or in your backyard. Darting after a squirrel can be a real safety issue if your dog ends up injuring himself, or running off the sidewalk during the chase.
Unmindfulness Of Others
Secondly, chasing after squirrels can get in the way of other passerby. In addition, others may construe the desire to chase after moving objects as aggressive and frightening.
Unfortunately, not everyone is a fan of dogs.
If your dog has a higher than average prey drive, you may be surprised to find that one day your dog has brought dead prey back home. That’ll be unpleasant to deal with… to say the least.
Finally, as dog owners we always want our dogs to obey on command. Any sort of external distractions can be a nightmare for us trying to train good behaviors in our dogs.
A dog focused on a squirrel is not focused on you. No matter how well you’ve perfected loose leash walking or recall, it can all break down in the face of new, exciting distractions.
How To Curb Squirrel Chasing Behavior
Now, we know why dogs chase squirrels, and that we should do something to curb chasing behavior on command. How do you go about doing that?
Using Squirrels As Training Opportunities
Note that squirrels are considered very difficult distractions for any dog to deal with, so perhaps start this training with lesser distractions first, such as a toy.
Most dogs, after seeing a squirrel, will immediately perk up their ears and go into “eye-stalk” mode instead of immediately giving chase to the squirrel.
At this moment, test your dog’s obedience. Call their name, instruct them to look or sit, and see if they obey. If they do, reward and praise profusely!
If they don’t pay attention to you, become more interesting and animated. And if that still doesn’t work, step away from the distraction until you get a response from your dog.
Remember that it’s all about taking baby steps! Starting with obedience in the mere vicinity of a distraction is the first step towards reaching the final desired behavior.
In general, this is a pretty good technique to use when dealing with any sort of distraction outside–a bird, a car, another dog, or an especially smelly piece of the ground. The moment your dog is fixated on anything, move away from the distraction until they’re willing to be obedient.
Then, slowly move back toward the distraction and generously reward any attention they give you. Every single step of progress should be set up for your dog’s success, and rewarded!
The "Leave It" Method
Here’s an extension of our previous suggestions: the “Leave It” Method.
Teaching your dog to leave something alone is a critical skill that could potentially save their lives. For example, your dog should stay away from funky-looking mushrooms while on a walk–they could be poisonous.
However, you’re not going to get a dog to ignore an interesting mushroom from the start. Begin with something simple. As we suggested before, start practicing this command with a toy.
With your dog leashed, issue a “leave it” command, give the toy a kick and restrain your dog if they lunge toward it. If they leave it alone, give them a treat!
If making the toy move is too enticing, slow things down by simply dropping the toy, or just putting the toy down on the floor.
Of course, not all dogs are toy-motivated either. In this case, simply replace the toy with a piece of food.
This is just a general outline of the strategy you should take. Once your dog has mastered the inanimate toy or foodpiece, then you can test the command on different distractions outside.
Don’t forget that inside and outside are two very different environments! It will still take time for them to generalize “Leave it” to any old object or squirrel outside.
Check out this wonderful article and FAQ on this topic by dog trainer Sue at The Paw Post, where she describes her version of this technique, the Stop command.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise.
A high-energy dog that hasn’t had the opportunity to exercise yet is bound to feel jumpy when they first step outside.
For very active dogs, ample exercise is the number one thing you can do to curb behavioral issues.
This is because exercise can drain some of that overflowing physical and mental energy, and make your dog more willing to learn and obey commands.
In general, dogs that are thoroughly exercised will be more calm. Exercise is also paramount in reducing destructive behaviors.
Remember that taking walks alone may not be sufficient exercise for some breeds. Certain dogs seem to have limitless energy that only more vigorous forms of exercise can test.
Taking dogs with you on hikes and jogs is sure to be sufficient. Playing games of fetch where your dog can go off-leash and sprint is also a great option to tire your dog out without much effort on your end!
Teaching Your Dog The Right Way To Use Their Snouts
Many articles suggest playing a game of “find it” with your dog in an area such as a yard, or even in the house.
The idea is to spread kibble or other treats around the yard. You can hide some of them–make it a challenge for your dog to find.
Once you’ve hidden all the goodies, let your dog explore the area and find all the food pieces.
Your dog is engaging in autoshaping here, where they are essentially training themselves! The more she works to sniff out the treats, the more she gets rewarded.
At the same time, it’ll be a good way to keep your dog’s attention off squirrels and more on the various treats in the yard.
If your dog remains distracted by the squirrels, try increasing the value of the treats you lay out.
You can also combine this strategy with mealtime to turn that into a training session.
Occasional squirrel chasing is natural for dogs. It doesn’t hurt to allow your dog to show off their natural hunting skills.
Our furry friends were born with inherent advantages that make squirrel chasing especially enticing and rewarding.
Given the circumstances, it’s less a matter of why dogs chase squirrels than a matter of what we can do to keep it under control if we have to.
However, it does pay to keep it under control. Citing safety as the main concern, squirrel chasing can also lead to other undesirable behaviors.
There are a number of positive reinforcement techniques you can implement to curb this behavior. It will be one of the hardest things to train in a dog, but being extremely diligent, patient, and consistent is always the right way to approach any sort of training.