Inside the Mind of Dogs-Why They Like to Chase Squirrels

A dog chasing squirrels

There’s something hardcoded in a dog’s DNA that makes them go crazy over squirrels.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a tiny little teacup French bulldog or the biggest German Shepherd you’ve ever seen – all of them want to leap off the leash and chase a squirrel up until it runs up a tree.

If you have owned dogs for any amount of time (or even just been around them for a while), you probably have seen this in action.
Everything is going okay, you’re out for a walk with your dog, the weather is nice, and the sun is shining.
All of a sudden your furry little family member starts to bristle, you notice a bit of gray or red in the bushes up ahead, and then your dog is jerking the chain trying to get after a squirrel!
It happens all the time.
But why? 

Why do dogs like to chase squirrels so much? Dogs descended from wolves so hunting comes naturally to them. They are hard-wired to chase smaller creatures like squirrels and are driven by an innate prey drive response.

That’s the quick answer but keep reading for more eye-opening info below!

Why Do Dogs Hate Squirrels?

One of the biggest mistakes you want to avoid making when trying to figure out why your dog goes crazy over squirrels is assuming that these animals are natural enemies.
No, your dog doesn’t have a hate for little squirrels – it just wants to eat them up!
Every breed of dog are direct descendants of wolves and still carry a lot of that DNA inside them. Truth be told, it doesn’t take a whole lot to trigger that DNA and those instincts, either – especially when it comes to the instincts for hunting and feeding on smaller animals.
Mother Nature has hardwired even the cutest little labrador retriever puppy in such a way that they’ll want to chase tiny squirrels the second that they smell or catch a glimpse of them.
No amount of domestication has eroded away that hardwiring, either. A dog’s brain is conditioned to respond aggressively to smaller creatures, chasing after them as part of their innate “prey drive” response that all wolves and dogs have inside of them.
All of this happens on a subconscious level without your dog, even being aware of what’s happening in the first place. This is why it seems like dogs are triggered immediately upon seeing or sniffing a squirrel, going crazy and getting all stirred up even if they were completely calm, cool, and collected just a few moments ago.
Sure, it’s possible to break this kind of behavior with a bit of training – something that we highlight in just a second – but it’s critical that you understand the why behind this behavior before you start any corrective methods.
Hopefully, now you know why your dog goes nuts when it sees a squirrel. It’s an automatic response programmed by nature, one that forces them to want to hunt for food on autopilot the second they see or smell those squirrels.

Why Chasing Squirrels Can Become an Issue for Your Dog

In a bunch of situations (especially in a fenced-in backyard, for example) there’s no real risk or danger of your dog chasing squirrels around before they climb up a tree.
In fact, plenty of owners appreciate this kind of behavior when it happens. It means their dogs are getting a little bit of extra exercise without them having to run around in the backyard or throw a ball around!
It’s also important to remember that this kind of behavior is hardwired directly into your animal.
If you jump in the middle of the chase every single time, depriving them of this activity, you’re going to force them to fight their nature in ways that they definitely aren’t used to. That’s going to cause a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of confusion.
Where things go a little bit sideways, though, is when this behavior starts to get dangerous or risky.
For starters, you need to make sure that your dog is in pretty decent health before you let it run all over the place, chasing squirrels.
Younger puppies that have no real health problems should be able to chase squirrels to their heart’s content, wearing themselves out, making them easier to train, and to make sure that they get plenty of rest for their growing bodies.
Older dogs, though, with worn-out joints and potentially brittle bones (especially those that are overweight) probably shouldn’t be throwing themselves around the yard after squirrels nonstop.
Every once in a while, that might not be that big of a deal, but you never know when one misstep, one paw in a hole, or one slip could trigger a visit to the vet and some pretty expensive bills.
Secondly, it’s important that you don’t allow your dog to chase squirrels when other dogs are around – particularly dogs that are not yours.

Dogs didn’t just inherit the prey drive instincts from their wolf ancestors, but also inherited pack mentality, too. Combine these two together when a strange dog sees another chasing after a squirrel and wants to join in on the action, and you can have a real mess on your hands pretty quickly.

Mix in dogs that may not necessarily get along well with one another when the squirrel goes up a tree (or gets caught), and things can get really hairy.
Finally, there aren’t a lot of dog owners that want to see what happens when their dog finally catches up to a squirrel and brings it home to share with their “human pack.” That’s usually going to be a pretty unpleasant experience across the board, especially if you have young children at home.

Do Squirrels Carry Diseases Harmful to Dogs?

One of the biggest reasons responsible dog owners don’t want their animals chasing squirrels is a lot less to do with the behavior of their dog and a lot more to do with the health risks squirrels pose.
Believe it or not, a squirrel can do just as much (if not more) damage to your dog than your dog can do to a squirrel.
Squirrels carry a whole bunch of harmful diseases, including rabies, Lyme disease, and even the plague, and all of them can be easily transferred to your animal. Worse, your dog doesn’t even have to catch the squirrel or come in direct contact with it to come down with these diseases, either.

It’s incredibly important that you do everything you can to avoid your dog chasing squirrels and contracting these deadly and dangerous diseases. The last thing you want is your animal being laid up at the vet, expensive medical bills, and potentially losing your furry family member just because they were allowed to chase sick squirrels around the dog park.

How Do I Stop My Dog From Chasing Squirrels?

Getting your dog to stop chasing squirrels begins with a rock-solid foundation of general obedience training.
Dogs that have graduated from “puppy kindergarten” are generally a lot easier to train in other ways later on in life. It’s never a bad thing to get those obedience foundations down pat when your dog is still young, either.
As far as squirrel specific training is concerned, you’ll want to make sure that you start with baby steps as you wean your dog off of this behavior.
The prey drive instincts will be overwhelming to resist for any dog that hasn’t been taught not to succumb to them before. It’s not a bad idea to start training with something much smaller and easier to control (something like a toy, for example) that you get them to “trigger” a freeze command on.
Throw a ball, train them to stop reacting to it immediately, freeze on your command, and only run after it when you give the green light. Build that up into throwing the ball a little further or a little faster and training them outside, until eventually, you are throwing a stuffed squirrel around the backyard to trigger those kinds of responses, too.
Lots of exercise before each training session will go a long way to shortcut your dog’s progress.
It sounds a little counterintuitive – wearing your dog out before you try to teach them something – but it works wonders on our four-legged, furry family members. Whereas people get mentally fatigued as their bodies fatigue, high-energy dogs can better focus and learn when they have had their batteries drained slightly.
At the end of the day, though, you really need to be deliberate, dedicated and move slowly to get your dog to resist their instincts on command.
This definitely isn’t a process that will resolve itself inside out a few days or even a few weeks. It’s going to take you a month or more to ingrain these new behaviors (and frequent “touchup” trainings for the rest of their life) – but if chasing squirrels is a big problem, it’s well worth the investment of your time.

Final Thoughts

 You might not be able to break your dog from reacting instinctively every time they see a squirrel. But with a little bit of effort, consistent training, and constant reinforcement, you’ll be able to eliminate almost all of this behavior pretty easily.

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