Owning a pet isn’t all cuddles and insta-perfect moments – it can be challenging, confusing and downright frustrating at times. To help you navigate pet-parenthood and all that it brings, we have launched Dear StyleTails – think of it as your really cute four-legged agony aunt!Every month our team of pet experts, including trainers, behaviourists, vets, nutritionists and holistic pet therapists, will answer a burning question from our community. Got something you want to ask? Submit your question here.
Q: How can I stop my dog barking at squirrels and rabbits?
My male standard poodle is a year and a half and has become obsessed with squirrels and rabbits. As the leaves fell from our large oak trees, he discovered all the life living in our backyard and barks all day.
If you let him out, he stirs up all the other dogs and they all run out barking at the trees. I bring them in and he immediately runs to the window to continue the insanity.
I have tried to distract him with other things without success. We have tried “leave it”, and “go to your bed”, all only work temporarily and he goes back to barking.
Please help us, our
A: Rosie Bescoby from Pet Sense
Rosie is a fully qualified Clinical Animal Behaviourist with a degree in Zoology & Psychology from the University of Bristol & a Post-Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling from Southampton University.
In order to teach an alternative behaviour, you first have to implement management strategies to prevent him continuing to rehearse the unwanted behaviour. As this is a self-reinforcing behaviour, rehearsing it will make it stronger and increase frustration when he is restricted behind the window.
First of all, you will need to think of ways to stop him practicing the chasing/barking in the garden and window barking. This is likely to mean taking him out into the garden on a lead and blocking visual access from the windows. Temporary opaque frosting stuck on the bottom panes of windows are a commonly preferred way to block visual access as it still allows the light in and means the dog can’t push past curtains or blinds that have been pulled across.
Provide your dog with lots of alternative arousal-reducing activities in the house and garden like things to chew (halved stag antler bars, anco roots, marrowbones, hooves, buffalo horns, and dried animal parts) and lick (stuffed Kongs and Licky Mats). Use your dog’s meal portions in activity feeders, search games and training a calm exit into the garden (with the dog on the lead to start with).
Reinforce calm as you open the back door and as you step out into the garden. You can then do lots of scatter feeding or provide chews or Kongs outside, whilst you keep hold of the lead. If your dog spots a squirrel or rabbit, try waiting to see if your dog can make the choice to look away and then you can heavily reward this choice.
You haven’t said whether your dog is toy motivated, but I would recommend looking into ways to improve toy-play so that the chase instinct can be given an appropriate outlet with a more satisfying end (the dog gets to catch the toy, unlike the rabbits and squirrels, I hope!). You can then reinforce the choice to look away from the squirrels with either toy play or tasty food. Once your dog is reliably disengaging from looking towards the trees, you can gradually move nearer. Then once you have cracked this, start to drop the lead or use a longer line, building up to them being off the lead.
If your dog spots a squirrel or rabbit, try waiting to see if your dog can make the choice to look away, then you can heavily reward this choice.
Really working on training “on your bed” and building duration in his bed whilst visual access is blocked would also be sensible. Add in distractions yourself so your dog learns that it pays to stay in his bed regardless of what else is going on around him.
I hope this helps. If you require professional help, I recommend contacting a good local force-free trainer.
Rosie Bescoby, BSc (Hons), PG Dip CABC
Full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors Find out more about Rosie and her work at www.pet-sense.co.uk
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