This Is Why Your Dog Chases Squirrels

A Jack Russell tA Jack Russell terrier chasing a squirrel up a treeerrier jumping a tree
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Written by Sharon Parry

Updated: October 13, 2022

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This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of training a dog. Just when you think your dog’s attention is focused on you, they detect a squirrel or other critter and you may as well not exist. If they are off-leash they disappear, if they are on a leash your shoulder gets pulled practically out of its socket. So, why do dogs chase squirrels? Is there anything that we, as owners, can do to curb this behavior? We’ve put together all the insights we can find and compiled some valuable advice on what you can do to help keep you and your dog safe.

Dog Breeds That Chase Squirrels the Most

Dogs love to chase squirrels due to the fact that the presence of these bushy tailed rodents activates their prey drive.

If you are reading this you probably have one of the breeds that like to chase squirrels, rabbits, hares, chipmunks, and even birds that are resting on the ground! You may be surprised to know that not all dogs do this. It’s the breeds that have high prey drives that show this behavior most often and we explain more about this below.

It’s important that you deal with the “squirrel issue” with these breeds because it poses the biggest barrier you will have when training them. Nothing is more distracting for these guys than a critter and distraction is the main challenge in training.

The dogs most likely to chase squirrels are those that have been bred for hunting and field sports. For generations, we have encouraged them to give chase to critters so we can hardly be surprised if they do it now!

Therefore, this is most likely to be a problem in the sporting group of dogs (such as the Spaniels, Retrievers and Pointers) the terriers (such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier), and some herding dogs (such as the Border Collie and German Shepherd). Sighthounds such as Afghan hounds and Whippets are also big chasers!

Individuals within these breeds can have different levels of prey drive so there are no guarantees. 

Toy poodle puppy, and miniature poodle chasing a squirrel in the summer

Dogs chase squirrels and other prey because they’re hard-wired to be predators like their ancestors: wolves.


Why Do Dogs Chase Squirrels?

Chasing squirrels and other types of critters is connected with your dog’s prey drive. So, what is prey drive and how does it work?

Our domestic dog breeds descend from wolves and we should not forget that wolves are predators. They are hard-wired to chase down critters like squirrels and eat them to survive. So, chasing critters is part of your dog’s survival instinct. Also, humans encouraged this behavior in some breeds because it was useful to them. Many sporting dogs were bred to flush out small animals and give chase.

What Dogs Think When Chasing Squirrels

It all starts with the scent! Dog’s noses are thousands of times more sensitive than ours. Even though you may have no idea that a squirrel is nearby, your dog will know it’s there and will be watching for it.

Then comes the movement. The squirrel breaks cover and your dog is off. This is because a dog’s eyesight is not that great in many ways (they cannot see details like we can) but is highly sensitive when it comes to movement.

Once your dog is chasing something they are highly distracted and is not listening to you. They will carry on chasing a scent long after the squirrel has disappeared up a tree. This lack of focus and engagement with their human can get dogs into some very dangerous situations.

At the same time, your dog is having the time of its life! This is called self-rewarding behavior and is a bad thing for obedience training. Your dog is learning that ignoring you is great fun. Every time your dog chases a squirrel and ignores your commands to stop, they are making it harder and harder for you to train them not to do this. Why would they bother obeying you when it is such fun to be disobedient?

How to Stop Dogs Chasing Squirrels

This is very challenging and you need to be realistic about what you can achieve and how long it is going to take. The focus of your training should be impulse control.

Dogs chasing squirrels go through a ‘search, stalk, chase, grab’ sequence. If you can intervene at the start, you may be able to stop it. Once the chase is happening it is much harder. Learn to spot when your dog has sniffed out a squirrel and then attract their attention by shaking a can full of coins or a loud whistle.

Teach your dog to focus on you when you are out and about by having treats and toys with you at all times. Fetch toys are a favorite of the sporting dogs and may help them to ignore squirrels.

Once you have taught your dog the “leave it” or “watch me” commands, you can use these to control them when they spot a squirrel.

A Jack Russell terrier running through a field with a ball

Playing fetch with your dog is a great way to divert it from chasing small animals


Keeping Dogs Safe Around Squirrels

If your dog is not yet trained to control its urge to chase critters, there are some other things that you can do.

Use a Short Leash

Use a short leash when you are in areas where there are likely to be squirrels. Extendable leashes can be problematic in this situation. They allow the dog to build up momentum and then they come to a sudden stop when they run out of leash. This can be dangerous for them and you.

Use a Harness

Regular collars, slip leads and halter collars are great for teaching a dog to walk on a lead but are potentially dangerous if your dog lunges quickly. A harness would be a better option.

Protect Your Yard

You may not be able to stop critters from entering your yard or garden but you can stop your dog from getting out and possibly injuring themselves as they give chase. Think about installing a dog-proof fence that dogs cannot get over. Maintain the fences and walls that you do have so that there are no gaps that your dog could squeeze through.

Be Vigilant

If your dog does bolt after a squirrel, give them a quick check over when they come back in case they have been scratched or bitten.

Dog Trackers

You may want to consider fitting a dog tracker to your dog’s harness so that you can locate them if they go missing. Also, make sure that your dog has an identity tag and is chipped.

Choose Where You Walk

Look out for environments that are potentially dangerous for your dog. For example, city parks are a problem because they have critters and are located close to busy roads so chasing a critter is a dangerous thing to do. The same is true for clifftop paths – there is the combination of seabirds that dogs love to chase and sheer drops that are dangerous.

Can Squirrels Hurt Dogs?

Most dogs are a lot bigger than squirrels and will not get hurt. However, there have been cases where a particularly ferocious squirrel has fought back. This can cause nasty wounds and infections. It may be worth investing in a dog first aid kit to take with you on country walks.

Squirrels do not carry fleas but they can carry ticks which can transmit Lyme Disease. There are plenty of effective tick treatments for dogs. If you spend a lot of time walking in long grass and forestry with your dog it is worth giving them this treatment.

Having caught the squirrel, sadly some dogs will then eat it. This can be very distressing to watch and is not one of the highlights of owning a dog, for sure. However, at least you can be reassured that eating a freshly caught squirrel is unlikely to cause your dog any harm.

What Not to Do if Your Dog Catches a Squirrel

Let’s start by looking at what you should not do.

  • Don’t start screaming and shouting. Your dog will interpret this as excitement, will think that you are super pleased with them and are therefore more likely to do it again.
  • Don’t try to grab the squirrel. Many dogs ‘guard’ their prey and will be very upset if you try to take it off them. They may even lay down on the squirrel’s body and growl at you. If you grab the squirrel, your run the risk of getting bitten.
  • Don’t try to prize it from your dog’s mouth. Your dog is never going to give it up and you could get hurt.
  • Don’t punish your dog. They do not realize that they have done anything wrong. Punishing them is a waste of time and damages your relationship.

What to Do if Your Dog Catches a Squirrel

So, here’s what you should do when your dog catches a squirrel.

Stay calm and try to act in a controlled way. At this point, your dog thinks that the squirrel is the most highly prized thing on the planet. If you want your pooch to carry on with the walk or get back in the car or house, that squirrel is coming as well – unless you can find a way to get it from your dog!

If you are not in a hurry, you could sit it out. Some dogs will eventually lose interest and may even bury the squirrel. This is when you can coax them into the car or house and deal with the carcass. You need to put it somewhere where your dog cannot detect it because dogs will return to find it many days later.

The alternative is that you coax your dog away from the squirrel by offering something that is more exciting. This could be a favorite toy or a tasty treat or both!

The rule is that you take the dog away from the squirrel not the squirrel away from the dog.

Activities for Dogs that Chase Squirrels

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ is a very apt phrase for dealing with squirrel-chasing behavior. Instead of trying to stamp out these impulses, perhaps you should channel them into a more constructive activity.

Play games like fetch with balls and discs or play chase with your dog. You could also teach them to sniff out certain objects in your yard – Kongs work well in this activity.

Enroll them in some dog sports such as Barn Hunts, Course Ability Tests (that use a fake lure), or Lure Coursing. Dogs with high prey drives often excel at Flyball and Disc Dog competitions.

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Parry is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on dogs, animal behavior, and research. Sharon holds a PhD from Leeds University, UK which she earned in 1998 and has been working as a science writer for the last 15 years. A resident of Wales, UK, Sharon loves taking care of her spaniel named Dexter and hiking around coastlines and mountains.

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