Those pesky squirrels!!

photo by katsrcool

photo by katsrcool

Do you have a dog that loves squirrels? My parent’s dog, Ginger, could sit in the backyard for hours watching the squirrels. Many dogs find squirrels quite interesting, which can be a big distraction during training.

Recently, one of my advanced classes took a field trip to a local park. Although it was pretty warm, there was a nice breeze and we were able to stay in the shade under the trees. We had a great time working on stay, leash walking, leave it, and other skills. About halfway through the class, however, we were joined by two pesky squirrels. They were running back and forth and playing on the ground between three large trees.

For one of the dogs in the class, a lab mix, this was much, much, much too exciting! He suddenly wanted nothing to do with his owner or with anything we were doing in class. He also had absolutely no desire for any of the yummy treats that she had with her.

The owner first tried moving the dog some distance away. However, he was still completely obsessed with the two silly squirrels. He would sort of walk with her, but he wasn’t able to perform any sorts of basic commands, including sit. So, I had her play a game with the squirrels. (This game was somewhat similar to the training adventure with the bunny rabbit that I wrote about earlier this summer!)

We started by asking the dog to “sit.” This was still way too much for him, so we backed up farther, until we found a distance sufficiently far away that he could sit when asked. As soon as he sat, he got to move several steps closer to the squirrels and spend a little bit of time watching them. Then, the owner would ask the dog to sit. When he did, they would move a little bit closer again.

A few times they got too close, and the dog could no longer hear anything she was saying. So, they would back up some and find a good distance where he could listen to simple cues. Pretty soon, the dog was quickly sitting when asked, even though he was 20-30 feet closer to the squirrels than he was when they started. He also was at a closer distance to the squirrels than he had been when he initially got distracted.

photo by comedy_nose

photo by comedy_nose

Rather than fighting against the dog’s natural desires or trying to distract him so that he would pay attention during class, we instead used what he really wanted (moving closer to the squirrels) to reinforce the desirable behaviors that we wanted (sitting and paying attention to his owner).

I often see pet owners (and even professional trainers) completely ignore what the dog really wants and, instead, continue to try to use the reward that the trainer thinks is appropriate, even when the animal is not very interested in that reward. For example, I was reading a new book the other day and came across a passage where the trainer even said that if the dog is not taking treats, to continue clicking and feeding treats, because eventually, the dog usually will start taking treats again.

To me, this doesn’t make sense at all. But, I see how trainers get caught up in this situation because I’ve been in similar places before and still sometimes find myself there. Sometimes, what you are doing just isn’t working. And, if you don’t have an alternative plan already planned out, it can be easy to just keep doing the same thing and hoping that eventually it will start working. However, this can be pretty frustrating and stressful for both you and the animal.

Instead, take a break. Take a moment to evaluate your training plan. What’s not going right and why is it not going right? Can you change the reinforcer you are using, move to a different location, or work on a different behavior instead? It can also be a really good decision sometimes to decide that your dog is just not ready for whatever you are trying to do and end for the day and come back later and try again.

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  • Terry Golson

    My very, very smart dog, Lily, has figured out that if on a leash she has no access to squirrels, so she ignores them. Also chipmunks, even 10 feet away. This was not something that I consciously trained. However, walks are so valuable to her, that I think that she learned that if she ignored the squirrel, she’d get to keep going down the trail. But off leash? At the age of 11 she pays close attention to them, and still can chase them down and kill them.

    • Hi Terry,

      Thanks for leaving a comment! Lily sounds like a smart girl. That’s great that she pays such close attention to you on leash, even with critters nearby.



  • Deborah Tolar

    “…trainer even said that if the dog is not taking treats, to continue clicking and feeding treats, because eventually, the dog usually will start taking treats again.
    To me, this doesn’t make sense at all.”

    Clicking might not make sense, unless the trainer was clicking swallowing the food, but continuing to feed, does make sense to me in a few situations. Multiple times over the years, I have gotten caught in situations, unable to seek distance from the distraction, where if I popped the food in the dogs mouth, rather than “offering”, then the dog would swallow, and I would repeat quickly 5 to 10 times and then the dog would visibly calm and be able to respond to a cue that I would again, reward.
    By that time, I was usually able to seek appropriate distance or the dog was now able to continue, sometimes at a entirely new level of tolerance of the distraction.

    • Hi Deborah,

      Thanks for leaving a comment and sharing info about a technique that has worked for you!

      My problem with this technique is that in the past I’ve seen people repeatedly click when the dog was so overthreshold that it couldn’t eat and, after awhile, the dog starts to tune out the clicker.

      I would much rather the person move somewhere else or make some sort of other change so that the dog was able to focus.

      I think this might work if the dog is just on the boundary of where the dog was unfocused, but not too unfocused. It sounds like this might have been the spot your dog was in, if you were able to get his attention back on you after putting food in his mouth a few times?



  • Great post!

    You really are a good writer and trainer Mary. Instead of being distracted by the pesky squirrels, you used those squirrels to play a game with the mix lab. Those squirrels were like a treat for him since he would move a bit closer if he would do the basic commands.

  • Very good points, my dog doesn’t get distracted by squirrels but other distraction. I will have to use your tips.

  • Oh my gosh, my dog is obsessed with squirrels. If she even hears that word, she goes absolutely ballistic. It’s hilarious trying to watch her climb trees to chase after them!

  • Brenda Young

    Great tips when we do get a dog, I know which newsletter I’ll be signing up for!

  • How funny! The squirrels in our backyard terrorize my cat from behind the glass sliding door every day!

  • Squirrels kinda freak me out. I don’t know if they’ll ever attack or not. Lol.

  • Theresa Beauteeful Living

    I have 2 dogs and one of them (boxer) is obsessed with the occasional squirrel visiting our backyard. I can certainly use your tips on dog training.

  • Rachel Elizabeth Paggeot

    Great advice 🙂 my dogs get distracted by EVERYTHING

  • Sometimes I think the squirrels know exactly how to push our pets’ buttons! Our cats are obsessed with them. Your tip about taking a break is such a great idea! I will definitely be bookmarking your blog for when we get a puppy!

    • Hi Kelly,

      So glad you found the tip about taking breaks helpful!

      Let me know later on if you have any puppy questions. 🙂



  • PM

    This post makes me want a dog! I love pets, all kinds of pets. lol