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Rocket Man vs Squirrels – What to Do When Dogs Overreact to Things in the Environment

Do you live with a dog who goes bonkers upon seeing squirrels or rabbits during walks? 

I often hear that complaint from pet stewards.

Five years ago, I taught Rocket basic manners. He learned quickly but his family reported that, true to his terrier nature, he became very excited upon seeing squirrels and rabbits and launched himself toward them, earning the moniker of Rocket Man.

The result for the person holding the leash was sore knees and shoulders, as Rocket unexpectedly bolted ahead. It was particularly concerning during winter conditions when traction was poor.

Loose-Leash Walking Skills

A sweet-looking brown and grey terrier with floppy ears laying in the grass
Excitement upon seeing squirrels and rabbits and launching himself toward them, earned him the moniker of Rocket Man. (Photo provided by Daniel Antolec)

I was asked to walk Rocket several times a week and during those walks I polished Rocket’s loose-leash walking skills and worked on his overly reactive behavior toward potential prey.

For the loose-leash walking component, I paid Rocket with tiny food treats for staying beside me, like a sidecar attached to a motorcycle. I also paid for offering me eye contact, sitting when I stopped walking, and for staying in sync with me when I played a game of abruptly changing direction and speed. We also played Find It during walks, so Rocket entertained himself sniffing in the grass to find treasures.

I was generous with treats until his leash walking behaviors became habitual. Then I reduced treat delivery to the way a slot machine pays a player (‘winning’ just often enough to stay interested in playing the game). Rocket was also given freedom to sniff about and pee on things.

See a Squirrel-Look at Me-Get a Treat 

We were then ready to tackle the challenge of squirrels and rabbits. The neighborhood was full of walnut trees and squirrel families, with a few rabbits scattered about. Rocket’s previous behavior upon seeing a squirrel or rabbit had always been frantic arousal, and I wanted to help him learn a different, calmer pattern of behavior.

I adopted a proactive strategy of scanning the landscape, so I spotted the critters before Rocket did. When I spotted a squirrel I stopped walking, had treats hidden in my hand, and waited for Rocket to spot the critter.

I stopped far enough away that Rocket would not launch into a frenzy of arousal but would be aware of the animal. That is the sweet spot for behavior change.

When Rocket saw a squirrel, I quietly waited, and at some point he turned to look back at me. I praised his choice and paid him with a treat. He could look at the critter as many times as he liked, and I paid him each time when he looked back at me.

Over time, his initial response grew calmer, and I reduced the distance from the critter when I stopped walking, so Rocket’s initial observation grew closer.

The Terrier, the Squirrel, and the Rabbit

Rocket’s pièce de resistance occurred one fall afternoon as we walked the neighborhood and the squirrel population scampered about in search of walnuts. We walked back to Rocket’s home and stopped at the intersection directly across the street. There was a house at the corner, creating a blind spot.

When we walked a few feet further ahead Rocket and I looked to our left and saw three squirrels foraging on the lawn, about 10-15 feet away…accompanied by a rabbit! Rocket and I stopped, and we all stared at each other. It reminded me of the final scene in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly when the three gunslingers confronted one another, with tense music in the background, leaving the viewer to wonder who would draw first and break the stalemate.

I too wondered who would make the first move, be it Terrier, squirrel, or rabbit? And what would be the outcome of that dramatic move? After a few seconds Rocket answered the question.

He turned his head and looked back at me.

I celebrated his choice and paid him generously for it. Rocket then looked at the critters again and again, always looking back at me and always receiving his reward. After a few repetitions Rocket relaxed and sat down, within lunging range of the potential prey.

The squirrels also relaxed and resumed foraging, but the rabbit was a skeptic and kept still.

I was proud of Rocket Man for remaining on the launch pad, proving the validity of a simple training method. You can do the same with your pet!

About the Author

Dan during a training session with his canine student Jackson (a large black, white and brown dog)

Daniel H. Antolec, PCT-A, CCBC-KA, CPDT-KA began teaching dogs in 2011 and founded Happy Buddha Dog Training. He teaches dogs in a way that makes it fun for pet stewards and pets alike.

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