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There’s often no quicker way to get a dog’s attention than a squirrel sneaking across the yard. Lots of dogs love squirrels, birds, rabbits, and other small critters. Patrolling the backyard for their presence is a favorite pastime. In fact, small animals are one of the trickiest training distractions.

But why are dogs so fascinated by birds and other critters? Sure, cardinals are beautiful and bunnies are cute, but that doesn’t explain your dog’s captivation. It’s your pet’s predatory heritage that’s to blame. Although it’s tough to counteract instinct, there are ways you can handle your dog’s obsession and even make it work for you.

Dogs’ Predatory Heritage

Over 14,000 years ago, there were no dogs. But there were wolves that lived near human settlements. These friendly wolves eventually evolved into early dogs. That means dogs of today, despite all our efforts to breed them for various purposes, still maintain some of that wolf heritage. And of course, wolves are predators, chasing and killing other critters for their survival.

Dogs share the hardwired predatory behavior sequence of wolves. The full sequence includes spotting the prey, then stalking, chasing, attacking, and finally, consuming. Not all breeds show the entire sequence. A dog’s original purpose can impact which parts of the sequence remain.

For example, Sporting Group breeds like the Labrador Retriever were developed to seek out downed birds for the hunter. They were bred to return those birds in one piece, rather than attack or eat them. Herding Group breeds like the Border Collie tend to exhibit the early parts of the sequence most strongly. However, the key thing for all breeds is what triggers the predatory sequence in the first place – movement.

In fact, a dog’s eyesight is wired for movement. Although dogs lack full color vision and have poor detail resolution, the structure of their eyes makes them extremely sensitive to anything that moves. So, no wonder they’re fascinated with all the critters running and flying through the backyard.

Australian Cattle Dog puppy standing on a stump in the yard.
©OlgaOvcharenko -

Training Techniques

It can be difficult to train a dog to ignore small critters. You’re fighting against a deep-seated attraction to movement. However, if your dog’s fascination is causing behavioral issues, management techniques can be helpful. For example, don’t let your dog indulge the obsession. If you let your dog out in the yard at the first sight of a squirrel, squirrels will surely become a distraction your dog won’t ignore. Instead, reserve the yard for potty business and keep your dog on leash while you work on impulse control and distraction training.

It can also be helpful to teach your dog to focus on cue with a phrase like “watch me.” Ask for eye contact before your dog notices the bird or bunny to prevent your dog from becoming distracted in the first place. If your dog spots the animal before you do, try redirecting your dog’s attention with the “leave it” cue. Practice in low distraction environments before working up to those where they’ll see rabbits or birds. Be sure to reward your dog with a treat when the cue works. You can even take advantage of the Premack Principle and use the critter as the reward by letting your dog return to watching the animal after looking away on cue.

When you’re dealing with animal distractions, avoid using cues you know your dog will ignore. That only teaches your dog that obeying cues is optional. For example, don’t call your dog to “come” if you know the squirrel in the tree will make that impossible. Instead, walk over to your dog and clip on the leash until your cues are more reliable.

Channeling Critter-Obsessed Instincts

Rather than fighting against your dog’s heritage, consider tapping into it in a more acceptable way. After all, dogs are so fun to play with because of that love of movement. Games like chase, fetch, and flying disc are all based on your dog’s predatory drive. Get out a ball or allow your dog to chase after you to provide some instinctual fun. Essentially, you want to substitute yourself or a toy for the animal prey.

Dog sports are another way to allow your dog to enjoy that wolf legacy. Earthdog and Barn Hunt are two sports that let your dog hunt real prey. In Earthdog, which is open to small terriers and Dachshunds, dogs explore underground tunnels. Barn Hunt is open to any dog that can fit through an 18-inch wide by bale height tall tunnel. Dogs competing in this sport work through a maze of straw or hay bales. In both sports, the prey, usually rats, are kept safe behind bars or in aerated tubes.

Sports that use artificial prey, such as a moving piece of plastic, can also help your dog tap into their predatory instincts. In Coursing Ability Test (CAT), dogs must chase a fake lure on a course within a set time limit. CAT and FastCAT are ideal for beginners, and open to any purebred or mixed-breed dog. Lure Coursing, open to Sighthounds, has dogs chase a white artificial lure around a 600 – 800-yard course.

For the ball- or flying disc-obsessed dogs, there is Flyball and Disc Dog to try. Flyball involves a team of dogs jumping hurdles and catching tennis balls. Disc Dog involves a series of fetch games with a flying disc. Both sports are open to dogs of all breeds, as well as mixed-breeds.

From tossing a tennis ball to organized dog sports, there are so many ways to have fun with your dog’s predatory heritage. Keep the squirrels safe and let your dog tap into those instincts with you instead.

Related article: Training Your Dog to Ignore Distractions—No Matter Where You Are
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