Friday, December 18, 2015

Blame It on the Squirrels


Barley has always been a loose leash walker. She didn't automatically know how to heel, but she has never pulled the way my childhood dogs did when they'd strain at the end of their leashes, wheezing and trying to get wherever we were going as fast as possible.

Even in her most reactive moments, Barley doesn't actually pull to get at the other dogs. She stays beside me and just jumps and makes rabid Old Yeller noises while maintaining no tension on the leash.

So imagine my surprise when in late October, I'm taking a leisurely stroll with my dog and all of the sudden my arm feels like it's being torn from my body. I squealed out of shock, more than from injury, and all of the sudden Barley was sitting at my side. I looked around and realized there was a big, fat squirrel chirping at us from a nearby tree branch.

This was taken at a time we could stop and look at squirrels without fear I'd lose my arm.
Squirrels have always been an enemy around here. There are adorable black squirrels at the arboretum that aren't as used to humans and dogs as the ones in our neighborhood, so they've always been especially interesting with how quickly they scurry away. We have big red fox squirrels that are the size of small kittens in our yard. They enjoy running up to my French doors when Barley and Soth are surveying the backyard or flicking their tails in Soth's direction as he sits in the bay window.  Once, Barley caught one (while on her leash, too!) and the force with which she grabbed it off the tree killed it instantly--but she also dropped it the second I squealed.

When that happened, we started doing reaction to distraction practice with our "what's that?" game any time we saw them. Barley had no trouble walking by squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks, or any other critters we saw on our walks. Occasionally, if one was exceptionally close to us, I'd reinforce her good behavior with a treat and she'd continue to trot along with a nice, loose leash.

Squirrels like acorns--maybe if I sit here long enough, one will appear.
Until recently.

Beginning in October, she started lunging and pulling every time she saw a squirrel. She also started doing that on certain streets where we regularly saw squirrels, even if there weren't any out and about, to charge ahead to certain trees along the sidewalk.

Barley is confident she can capture any squirrel that crosses her path.
Lately, we've had big, fat, lazy squirrels along the sidewalks and trails and they don't seem the least bit concerned that Barley is around. I'm assuming our unseasonably warm days are responsible. Usually, the squirrels are tucked away somewhere warm and only venture out for quick visits to food stores--but they seem to be celebrating the warmer days and feasting as much as possible, even if that means sitting in the middle of the sidewalk when my enthusiastic dog is trotting along.


We've had to go back to square one to practice ignoring squirrels on our walks--and it hasn't been fun. As much as I love loose leash walking, I hate training it. When she gets too busy staring, I've refocused her attention and switched her from using her nose to using her eyes by tossing treats ahead of us on the sidewalk. When she refuses to acknowledge my existence when I say "what's that?" or "heel," I put on the breaks and stop and wait for her return to my side. Sometimes, we have quick direction changes, such as doing a circle around a telephone pole or a tree before continuing back in our original direction.

It's been a long, slow process and we've been working on it consistently for the last two months. Despite the fact that I'm sure my neighbors all think I'm crazy for stopping and circling and all of the other weird things Bar has me doing on walks, the training has paid off and she's back to ignoring the squirrels that we pass and we can focus on just enjoying nice, long walks together.


18 comments:

  1. Good technique for distracted dogs. I bet it made walk time difficult.

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    1. Patience is not my strong suit, so it was definitely a challenge having to go back to basics--but also a good reminder not to let myself get too comfortable and forget to reinforce good behavior :)

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  2. My dogs do the exact same thing EVERY October!! I totally relate, it sucks. Darn squirrels!

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    1. Squirrels are the worst! We'll probably be experiencing the same thing in the spring when they start coming back out for food and are too weak with hunger to scamper away quickly.

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  3. Oh yes, our squirrels are celebrating the warmer days as well...they're everywhere, and definitely prancing along our backyard fence. I haven't seen any sitting on sidewalks though.

    I've been able to drastically improve my girl Missy's polite off-leash walking over the last few months...will write about that next week.

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    1. I'm still catching up on all of the posts I missed during my holiday travels, so I can't wait to read about your off-leash success! I'm glad my dog isn't the only one being tortured by squirrels--misery loves company after all ;)

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  4. I feel fortunate that Jack has never been a puller either and not a chaser of animals - at least on our walks.

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    1. Barley is usually very, very good--but I guess the universe thought I needed a reminder to praise her more often so she keeps that up when the distractions get closer.

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  5. We always race for squirrels and wabbits. I don't actually pull, but Bailie still does. She is getting better, though. We can't imagine not going after them!

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    1. My parents' dog is like you girls--she loves to chase rabbits! Luckily for my arm, Barley usually doesn't even notice rabbits unless somebody else points them out first, but those squirrels have been a different story lately!

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  6. We've had to reinforce not chasing squirrels this fall too. They've been very busy. Sometimes if it's safe, he's allowed to chase them and we run together.

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    1. I am trying to imagine what our neighbors would think if they saw Barley and I chasing squirrels together--it probably wouldn't seem any crazier than my distraction training methods do, so we might have to try that ;)

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  7. I wonder why they suddenly became interesting to her again?

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    1. I think it's probably just the fact that they are too close to resist. Usually, they run several feet away from the sidewalk or scamper up a tree long before we get up next to them, but lately it's seems like they're just begging her to catch them!

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  8. I think the squirrels must have been taunting her, causing her to regress...LOL. I guess training is something we are never done with, and refresher courses are needed every so often. We've been lucky that we don't see a lot of critters on our walks. Sometimes the dogs will go alert when they hear a chipmunk chirping but they don't usually try to give chase.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. The squirrels definitely have been taunting her! They can be so cruel--and it has been a good reminder that just because Bar is usually very good at ignoring them it doesn't mean that I never need to reinforce that good behavior.

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  9. Squirrels like to tease :) At least Barley is just lunging. My Dachshund Gretel also does this high-pitched "chirping" while she is pulling. We don't have any distraction training to go back to so you're certainly several steps ahead of us there.

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    1. I always joke that Barley's a bit like a ninja because she's very quiet when she's going after something she wants--she's managed to steal a stick of butter off the kitchen counter when there were 4 people in the room and not one of us noticed until the butter was long gone.

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