Canine Behavior/Squirrels!


Hi Dr. Connor- I have asked several questions in this forum previously, and your answers have been very helpful, so I'm back!  We have a 2yo male (neutered) shepherd/lab/?boxer cross.  Very smart, has completed Level 1 obedience and 4 levels of agility, and is now enrolled in nose-work classes.  He certainly has a mind of his own, but is a fast learner.  The problem: he is completely obsessed with squirrels.  I realize most dogs hate the little rodents, but he is beyond.  When he sees one while out on a walk, he fixates on it; depending on it's proximity, he will scream, leap in the air, try to follow it up a tree (or whatever), to the point where he has injured both my shoulders, and when I started using a waist leash, bunged up one of my knees.  He has also started to generalize, so he will check out most trees that we pass on a walk.  I can't get him to look at me, sit, or any of the other commands that he will perform willingly at other times.  Please help!  Thanks!

First: use a strong body harness (not a neck collar).  I would suggest a Halti as well but it appears this dog's prey drive is quite high and he might need some remediation that requires that prey drive to be captured (which means put under control to a cue) and further trained (to a 'target' prey, such as a large ball or stuffed animal).  I can't do this from a text box.  I suggest you find a certified applied animal behaviorist who can see with both eyes what I cannot see from here, and those things include the dog's alert warning, your full body response (which the dog sees even as YOU see a squirrel coming), his fixation on trees at this point (which can be easily counter conditioned), and the manner in which your response to his prey drive (which makes cognition impossible for him) has contributed (without your knowing it) to his extreme focus.  All of this can be remedied and the dog's prey drive can be controlled but I can't advise you how to do it in a text box.  It would be unprofessional, first; and if I were to make a mistake after asking you a page of questions and getting a page of answers, it could be harmful.

Find a CAAB (NOT a dog trainer) by calling the veterinary college in your area OR seeing the following sites:

MEANWHILE:  using the body harness (so the dog no longer suffers any result from pulling against the collar around his neck, even if it is a martingale), do the following after FIRST working to teach the dog "attention" at home indoors, and then in places (like large empty parking lots: schools on weekends, libraries, etc.) where squirrels are less likely to be seen.  (Remember: this is nesting season and breeding season for squirrels so they are very active in the northeast especially):

This particular skill involves the dog's cognition: if he is in the middle of a prey drive response, it will not work.  Therefore, it has to work ten out of ten times (first indoors, then in the yard, then in places where squirrels are not readily seen) before it will work in a real world situation.  In such a situation, it is necessary for YOU to be on alert for squirrels (ok kinda like walking on water, I know), but watching your dog's body language (ear set and tail set are signs) that he is being engaged by his prey drive and INTERVENING.

The intervention goes like this: the dog has learned "attention" earns reward.  The dog must be led, deliberately and calmly with an upbeat "come along, come along" signal in circles left, right, figure eight, until the dog is visibly no longer responding to prey drive but is giving attention: stop, highly reward, go forward.  Since we can't predict the appearance of squirrels (and this may generalize to anything including birds), we must be at the "ready" at all times and eyes on by a CAAB is going to be much more productive than anything I can share with you in this venue.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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