My husband and I refer to this time of year1 as “ground squirrel” season because of the number of squirrels we see in our neighborhood hanging out under trees; dashing across the street, seemingly as close to our dog as possible; and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
Most of the year, when the squirrels are hanging out in the trees, Sirius Black will ignore them. However, when there are thirteen squirrels hanging out under a tree a few feet from where we are walking, ignoring them becomes a lot harder for him. Instead, he thinks it would be a good idea to chase them. Barking at them is also a good alternative. (Barking is also his reaction to sheep, deer, and geese that are not where they belong.)
There are a few ways to deal with this:
- I can resign myself to being spun around like a top by an almost-fifty-pound Border Collie mix barking and pulling.2
- I can take advantage of this great real life training opportunity.
Believe me, I completely sympathize if you are inclined to do the former. “Let’s just wait this out and then it will be over,” you’re probably thinking. True, it may get cold, or snow, and then the squirrels will retreat back up the trees for a few months. But, the reality is that they will be back, maybe when you least expect it (squirrels are sneaky like that), and you will be back where you are now with a barking, lunging dog at the end of your leash.
So, let’s seize the moment. If you haven’t done any previous work on loose-leash walking, I don’t recommend that you start your practice with squirrels. They are unreliable training assistants.3 Instead, look for a place where you can predict the type of distractions you will see (examples: dogs, kids, joggers, bikers), and control how far away from them you are. You can even enlist your very own dog/kid/jogger/biker, if that makes it easier.
Start at a distance where your dog will notice the distraction, but not react, or not react strongly. Bring their attention back to you (usually, this works best with food treats), and reward the for paying attention to you.
Gradually, reduce the distance to the distraction or increase how distracting the distraction is. (If that sounds confusing, consider “is my dogs reaction to bikers the same as to running children? the same as to deer? the same as to other dogs?” Most likely, the answer is “no,” although how distracting any one of these is will differ from dog to dog.)4
Don’t expect your progress to be a straight line. There are always variations. And your dog may need a refresher when the next ground squirrel season rolls around (after all, he hasn’t seen them in ten months, give or take two). But, given time, patience, and a desire to not being spun around like a top at the end of a leash, you can experience a peaceful walk.
1Ground squirrel season is usually October and November, but when it’s 65°F in mid-December, it gets an extension. Yay.
3And sneaky, see above.
4These are the basic principles for working on loose leash walking, but don’t feel like you are all on your own. If you have a very reactive dog, feel unable to work through this on your own, or just want support and a personalized plan, contact a qualified dog trainer.