Wild animals such as skunks, coyotes and coons are common in and around most communities. Protecting your dog from a confrontation with local wildlife means overriding his natural chase instinct through training.
Whether you and your dog live in a city, town or rural area, you share habitat with local wildlife. Confrontations between dogs and wild animals are common, and can result in dangerous or even life-threatening injuries. Since we need to share our world with these wild creatures, we have to take steps to protect our dogs, and the wildlife, from potentially lethal face-to-face encounters.
Depending on where you live, local wildlife can run the gamut from the usual squirrels, rabbits and raccoons, to porcupines, skunks, possums, foxes and even bears or cougars. Animals like coyotes and bobcats have adapted so well to human development that even if you live in a suburban area, chances are you’ll meet up with them eventually. In fact, coyotes adapt to almost any living situation, making dens out of downed trees, culverts, or even under decks.
Most encounters between humans and wildlife are peaceful, but dogs — especially loose dogs — add another element. “Squirrels, raccoons, and skunks see your dog as a predator, and animals like coyotes seem them as adversaries,” says Dr. Kat Miller, a certified professional dog trainer and Director of Anti-Cruelty Behavior Research with the ASPCA. Prey animals like rabbits and squirrels will usually run away from your dog, but others will try to defend themselves by various means — like a skunk with his spray or a porcupine with his quills. Larger predatory animals like coyotes, cougars or bears can attack if chased or confronted by a dog. “Either way, your dog is at risk, and he might even get you in trouble if he doesn’t know how to curb his chase instinct.”
It’s natural for your dog to give chase
“It’s important to understand that your dog’s predatory behavior is normal,” says Dr. Miller. “We sometimes think our dogs are being bad, but the chase/ prey drive is instinctual. The problem is that chasing another animal can really get your dog into trouble. When he’s ‘on chase’ he has a laser focus. He isn’t just ignoring your recall; he truly doesn’t hear you. All his attention is on the object. When he’s in that state, he can have a bad episode with a cornered animal or might even run across a road and get hit by a car.”
But the chase drive itself isn’t the enemy. In fact, every time your dog fetches a ball or leaps up to catch a flying disc, he’s following his predatory response to movement. There’s a good reason he loves to do it; when your dog is “on chase”, his central nervous system releases feel-good endorphins to his brain. Those endorphins can last for hours. It’s similar to the feeling you get when looking at a beautiful piece of art or taking a bite of chocolate.
Chasing is a form of positive reinforcement
“Those feel-good endorphins are a form of positive reinforcement,” says Dr. Miller. “Even if your dog doesn’t catch the squirrel he’s chasing, the reward is in the good feeling he gets from the chase. If the behavior is consistently rewarded, it can really escalate.
“If you think about it,” she adds, “the toys you buy for your dog mimic little critters. Some of them squeak or roll like a prey animal might. You want to be a good dog parent by honoring his need to chase and shake things. And there’s no reason for your dog to give that up; he can still do it, but with a little more direction from you. Chasing is fun, but he must halt the chase if you ask him to.”
Start by redirecting his attention
A good place to begin, according to Dr. Miller, is by using your dog’s favorite toy to redirect his attention to you when he starts to chase something in the backyard. “The next time he chases a squirrel, try redirecting his attention back to you by shaking his favorite toy instead,” she says. “A whistle is helpful to get his attention. You’ll have to be very enthusiastic in order to make the reward for ‘chasing’ you greater than the reward he gets from chasing the squirrel.” Highly-valued treats can also help with this redirection.
In addition, practice gaining your dog’s attention by catching his eye. If you can get your dog to look directly into your eyes as you redirect his attention to the toy or treat, you’re well on your way to the next step, which is to train your dog to “wait”.
Teaching your dog to “wait”
The “wait” command is a lot like the “stay” command, but with a subtle difference. Your dog doesn’t need to hold any particular position. All you’re asking is that he pauses, redirects his attention to you, and waits for your command. Reward your dog for small successes and build on that foundation.
“You should start training the ‘wait’ command when your dog is still a puppy, but even a mature dog can learn this,” says Dr. Miller. “Start by teaching him to wait before he’s allowed to approach his food bowl, and before he goes outdoors.” Remember to use lots of praise and treats at this stage.
With my own dog, I draw out the word “waaaaait” which seems to make sense to my dog, but you’ll want to experiment to see what works best for you. Remember to reward your dog for even the slightest hesitation at first, and then keep building on his skill. Practice the “wait” when visitors arrive and be sure all family members are consistent with training.
As your dog gets better at waiting, take him outdoors to practice on bigger challenges. Enlist the help of a family member to challenge your dog with a toy while you give the command to wait. Raise the bar slowly; you don’t want to test-drive the skill in a situation where your dog could be at risk of injury.
“Some dogs are easier to train than others,” says Dr. Miller. “The border collie, for instance, was bred to follow commands or signals at a distance. It might be easier to train her than a terrier or a sight hound, but it’s a trainable skill no matter what breed of dog you own.”
Once you have trained a solid “wait” into your dog, you have a much better chance of preventing him from chasing and confronting wildlife, whether you’re in the backyard, the dog park, or a wooded area. Yes, his urge to chase is a strong one, but with a little practice and some extra precautions (see sidebar) he’ll learn to override his instinctual response to hightail it after the next rabbit, skunk or other critter he sees.
Minimize your dog’s contact with wildlife
No matter how solid your dog’s training is, minimizing his contact with wildlife is part of ensuring his safety. Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t leave out food that may entice wild animals. This includes pet food, of course, but stay mindful of other wildlife lures like low-hanging bird feeders and suet cakes, unsecured garbage bins, and vegetable composts.
- Avoid hiking with your dog at dawn or dusk, when many wild animals are most active.
- Be extra cautious in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when wild animals are foraging for food and raising young.
- Hike in a group. The more people and dogs around, the more likely wild animals will keep their distance.
- Ideally, keep your dog on a lead; if you want to let him run free, however, keep him in sight at all times.
- If you do encounter a wild animal, stay focused and calm. Most of the time the animal is startled or simply curious. Avoid movements that might be perceived as a threat.
Tipper’s bear encounter
Tipper, my rescued border collie, has a pretty good recall. I was thankful for it last spring when we were hiking a forested trail in northwestern Connecticut. I’d been daydreaming, enjoying the day with my dog, when a large black bear lumbered onto the path ahead of us. Tipper stopped in her tracks, her eyes locked on the bear. I didn’t expect her to turn and look at me, since the bear challenge was a huge one, and I knew she couldn’t take her eyes off it. But she paused, waited, and cocked one ear in my direction to let me know she was listening.
Wait,” I commanded in a low, but firm voice. I held my breath as the bear sniffed the air, then trundled back into the woods. We waited until we were sure the bear had moved well off the trail and then continued our hike. Tipper moved forward cautiously, sniffing the ground where the bear’s paws had been only seconds before.
I was very thankful that day that I’d taught my dog the “wait” command. If Tipper had caved to her natural instinct to bark and chase the bear, we both could have been in trouble.