Fall is in the air, and the squirrels are afoot!
Those little guys are skittering around prepping for winter, but it sure seems like they sometimes go out of their way to torture our dogs! I have a wood fence and they insist on running back and forth along the top when they could just go around to avoid the dogs. Or they could just wait until the dogs aren't looking or are going back inside. But they always seem to cross just at the worst possible time!
If your dog has a problem with squirrels, there are a few different tacks to take. First, some dog psychology: all squirrel chasing is linked to the "prey instinct," which behaviorists currently classify more as food acquisition behavior rather than true aggression. This doesn't mean that your dog intends to actually kill and eat the squirrel (most dogs don't, though some do kill them but not eat them, and a very small number of dogs both kill and eat it.) Most dogs have only the "chase" part of the predatory sequence in their genetic behavioral vocabulary, but even so, that "chase" is every bit as determined and single-minded as a wolf's chase to get dinner!
There's three primary plans of dealing with squirrels. Here's the basics of all three, and the pros and cons of each!
The most common training method is to look at squirrels as "distraction" (albeit extremely difficult distraction) and use the same training methods as you would for any other distraction. You start at a great distance from the squirrel and reward check-ins, loose-leash walking, and even sits, downs or other behaviors; bonus if you can catch automatic check-ins and uncued good behavior. As the dog gets better and better, you can move in and work closer and closer. From the dog's perspective, this "good" behavior is gaining him access to the squirrel (while chasing no longer works) so he is motivated to comply -- for most dogs, access is more valuable than food anyway, though the treats remain a good bonus. This is a great training method; the only drawback is that you sometimes can't get a lot of control of "distance" (how far away from the squirrel you are.) It's not easy training if you're working at 10 yards and suddenly a little squirrel comes shooting in front of you at 2 feet! This is my favorite technique for dogs who are generally calm (except around squirrels) and who are food-motivated. In Portland, it is easy to find parks with large open fields which border wooded (squirrely) areas, and those are great locations to work in.
A much less common, although really good, training method is to work on activating the dog's prey drive/chase instinct, but then use it to turn the dog instead to playing with, running with, and chasing you (or a ball or toy.) You then begin to build elements of "the hunt" (such as looking around, chasing things, etc) but as an activity that is directed and controlled by you. This training can be so elegant and sophisticated the dog will actually ignore the squirrels because they're not part of the hunt which is controlled by you. It's complex training, with multiple little bits and pieces, and each piece has to be mastered and then put together seamlessly, but "hunting" with your dog is such a unique and fun experience that it's worth it! I really like it for dogs who are extremely fast, keen and athletic -- dogs who go 0-60 in the blink of an eye.
Sadly, my least favorite training technique also seems to be the most common. This is the one where the dog receives physical punishments for lunging at/chasing squirrels. Unfortunately the dog is so motivated to chase that the punishments have to be quite severe for the dog to stop. Jerks with prong collars and shocks from electric collars are usually what's required to punish/interrupt a dog from a pell-mell gallop at a squirrel. A punishment-based training method should work within 2-3 administrations of it (that's literally the only good thing about punishment-based training methods -- if they're going to work, they work fast.) But unfortunately with squirrels, most punishments can stop the dog in the heat of the moment but do nothing to prevent future chase attempts. So for the entire fall season, you are stuck out there armed only with tools to physically control and manipulate your dog, and the harsher tools come with problems of their own and do nothing to improve your relationship with your dog. If you're stuck in this behavior rut, let me know! We can try some other method!