golden retriever dog chasing squirrel chase squirrels other critters

Why Do Dogs Chase Squirrels And Other Critters?

What's your dog's favorite animal? If you answered squirrel, or any other small critter, you're not alone. Even Pixar tapped into the canine obsession with little animals in the movie Up, where Dug the dog often interjected with "squirrel!" That represents many real world dogs who love chasing critters, like squirrels. In fact, one of the toughest training distractions to conquer for dogs is small animals. So, why do dogs chase squirrels and other critters? We dive into the answer, here.

Predatory Instincts

One of the most common reasons why dogs today chase squirrels is because they still have predatory instincts from their wolf ancestors - chasing and hunting prey animals, such as squirrels, is part of survival in the wild. This is the same reason why dogs tend to love squeaky toys. In fact, wolves have a specific predatory behavior sequence (identify prey, stalk, chase, attack and consume) that our dogs may still exhibit part or all of, thanks to their inherent predatory drive. 

Pro Tip: Keep an eye on dogs with strong predatory drive as they may run off or bring home their kill.

Fascination With Movement

Despite having limited color vision and visual acuity (sharpness), dog eyesight is sensitive to movement. This is, again, thanks to their predatory heritage. Dogs have faster motion perception than humans, which helps them more quickly detect visual changes in the real world (e.g. for hunting). This means, for example, that our dogs see moving balls at a slower pace and non-HD TV as a rapidly flickering series of images (like a flip book). So the mere movement of squirrels catches their attention and fascinates them.

Keen Sense Of Smell

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and catching the scent of something intriguing can send them into tracking mode. The scent of a prey animal, in particular, can trigger their predatory instincts and prompt a chase reaction. Not only do dogs have a powerful sense of smell (between 1,000 to 10,000 stronger than ours), they also have a large olfactory center in their brain that allows them to store information about scents. This means they can remember the scent of a squirrel and continue trying to chase it, even after it's gone. This also means that some dogs who were bred to use their sense of smell (such as scent hounds like Beagles and Bloodhounds) may exhibit more scent driven chase behaviors.

Playfulness And Curiosity

Another common reason dogs like to go after squirrels is because canines are playful and curious. This is especially true for younger dogs and puppies, as well as those who enjoy playing chase with other dogs and people. In these instances, make sure to keep an eye on dogs trying to play with wild animals to prevent them from running off or being bitten.

Breed History

Some breeds will be more interested in chasing squirrels because of their original purpose. For example, sighthounds like Greyhounds and Terriers were bred to chase animals. On the other hand, herding breeds like Border Collies and German Shepherds tend to be chasers because of their herding drive. All that being said, any dog can show interest in chase for the reasons above. In addition, depending on their original purpose, some breeds only exhibit parts of the aforementioned predatory behavior sequence of wolves. For instance, Golden Retrievers and Labradors were bred to bring game back to their hunters in one piece rather than attack or consume them. And herding breeds often exhibit the beginning stages of the sequence more than the later ones.

Can You Train A Dog Not To Chase?

Training your dog not to chase can be a good idea if you're concerned that your dog may get loose, lost or bitten (or if you want your dog to stop bringing you dead animals as a "gift"). But can you even train dogs not to chase, if it's instinctual? You can, though the task can be a difficult one since it's not only an inherent behavior, but a self-rewarding one. It's best to start training when your dog is a puppy or as young as possible. A few options to train your dog not to chase include:

  • Distraction training - teaches your dog to ignore distractions and pay attention to you (or whatever you ask them to pay attention to).
  • Impulse control training - refocuses your dog's instinctive desires into a more productive activity.
  • Obedience and leash training - helps your dog learn to listen and ignore urges, such as chase.
  • Use cues like "look" or "watch me" - asking for eye contact before your dog notices a critter can prevent distraction in the first place.
  • Use cues like "leave it" - asks your dog to leave a stimulus alone and redirects your dog's attention.
Pro Tip: Don't use a cue you know your dog will ignore. Also, try using toys and treats when outside to keep your dog's attention on you.

How To Channel Your Dog's Obsession With Critters

Because it's so tough to break a dog's instincts, you can opt to channel their chasing rather than train them. You can play games that play into the behavior and predatory heritage, like chase and fetch (which substitute yourself or a toy for the prey) or nose work and other scent tracking games.

Dogs sports are another effective and fun way to channel your dog's chasing behavior. Earthdog and Barn Hunt are two options that let your dog hunt for real prey. The prey, usually rats, are kept safe in contraptions so your dog will be able to track and locate, but not attack or consume. Earthdog is for smaller dogs to explore underground tunnels, while Barn Hunt is for any dogs that can fit through 18" wide tunnels in their maze. You can also opt for dog sports that use artificial prey, where they can chase a fake lure through a course. Even though the "prey" is plastic, it still triggers those predatory chasing instincts. Lastly, Flyball and Disc Dog are good sport options if your dog is obsessed with balls or frisbees.

Safety Tips For Dogs That Love Chase

Chase can pose some risk for dogs, since it often arises unexpectedly. Here are some ways to keep your dog safe when they like to chase:

  1. Keep them on leash in public and on walks, hikes and anywhere critters may be.
  2. Use a shorter leash, keep your longer leash short and avoid retractable leashes to prevent a running start.
  3. Use a harness to protect your dog's neck from pressure and injury caused by any pulling. A harness will also give you more control during pulling and for redirecting attention.
  4. Ensure your yard is fully fenced, secured and tall enough so your dog can't escape, jump over or run out.
  5. Always pay attention to and keep an eye on your dog when outside.
  6. If your dog's behaviors change suddenly or unexpectedly, check for signs of bites or scratches. If there are any indications that your dog was bitten or attacked, contact your vet immediately.
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