Chasing Squirrels (2006).

To Chase or Not to Chase

I mentioned in a previous post (Friday, June 6, 2008) the need to take charge of a dog’s emotional charge. You want to do this without attempting to become some mythical pack leader, of course. 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. Freddie had been traumatized by an incident on Second Avenue, when a business owner pulled down a gate right next to Freddie's head. He panicked, and ran across Second Avenue to safety. When a dog is in a panic you're not supposed to move toward him, but I wasn't about to leave Fred on the other side of the street while I was on the other. Luckily, the evening traffic wasn't moving very fast, if at all.

So I crossed the street and went toward Freddie, got down low next to him on the sidewalk, and was about to grab his collar when a well-meaning woman tried to grab his collar. Freddie freaked and took off as fast as he could toward Central Park. He was grazed by a car on the way. There was no way that I could catch up with him, though a guy on roller-blades tried to go after him for me. But he couldn't catch up with Fred, who was running on grass, heading toward a part of the park called The Ramble.

I spent several hours trying to find him, but it was dark, and I had no luck until he came out of the Ramble on his own two days later. Someone found him and his collar, and called me at 5:00 Sunday morning.

When I arrived he was just hanging out, seemingly untroubled by what had happened. It wasn't until he saw me get out of a cab that he went nuts, so happy so see me, almost as happy as I was to see him. Unfortunately, about a week later he started having panic attacks, mostly caused by city traffic noises. He was fine in the park.

In fact, I’d been trying to find a way to get him to play tug-of-war and fetch outdoors in order to cure those panic attacks, but his only way of expressing his prey drive was by stalking and squirrels. 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, watching the squirrel the whole time.

Then It Hit Me

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 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, I’dshout, “Freddie, come!” (while he was already running toward me). Then, once he got to me, I’d 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 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 no-nos in the dog training world. But doing each of these things helped me take charge of Freddie’s emotional energy. That was the whole point.

How it Worked

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, and doing the "pushing exercise," I decreased his resistance to my position as a vertical being and gave him the satisfaction of grabbing omething with his teeth.

It also helped that Freddie’s m.o. when 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).

Don't Try This at Home!

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 playing tug before you put her in a situation where she’s going to come up against her biggest temptation, whatever that is. 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"

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