ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Desensitizing to Squirrels

Hi Courtney,

Please don't give up on Murphy! Yes, you're tapping into some hardwired behaviors, but he is not so obsessed that he won't respond to the clicker or treats, so I do hope you will keep working on this, and perhaps try a few new approaches. Murphy is still a puppy, and I have seen really, really obsessive dogs come around. My Peek, for one!

Peek was a hundred times worse. I nearly retired him from service work a hundred times. I cried on every friend's shoulder. I felt like the world's worst dog handler. Peek was SO obsessed there was no focus on me whatsoever, no matter HOW high powered the treats were or how hungry he might be. Worse--all the work I did trying to desensitize him backfired when my husband took him out for nightly walks on the Flexi, and allowed him to chase squirrels and rabbits to his heart's content.

Yet, today, Peek can walk by a squirrel without obsessing. He's still VERY aware of them, and at a HINT of a cued release, would be on them in a hotflash. BUT, he is now able to give me attention, and I consider that a major success.

To get to this point after all the wrong reinforcing which had already been done (and we're talking 3.5 solid years of it, daily), I had to back up, begin my work in a less-stimulating environment. The squirrels RUNNING were the biggest problem--kicking in his prey drive.

I went to pet shops daily, got him used to first watching the ferrets, hampsters and mice run around in their confined cages. I worked to capture his attention with the clicker and treats. I worked on this daily until he could sit there, give me attention, and not drool buckets on the floor in front of the cages.

Then I began short outdoor sessions in areas where there were squirrels, but not "squirrel central". I did not allow him on a Flexi at this point--he would be too far away for me to capture his attention, and I didn't want him to variably reinforce the squirrel obsession for any reason.

I had Peek in heel position, and kept up a steady rate of HIGH reinforcement--12-20 clicks a minute or so, while passing the "squirrel trees". I marched back and forth, then around and around the tree in each direction. If he began to focus on the squirrel, I did not give him a chance to tune out to me, to obsess--instead, I moved IN toward him, moving into his personal space. '

At some point when this is done, the dog WILL give you his attention. I got it, and c/t'd, then kept moving INTO his space, in a wide circle, forcing him to concentrate on me so he wouldn't get run over. During this time I kept up a rapid rate of reinforcement, and because I knew this particular dog was very responsive to the TONE of my voice, I added verbal praise profusely after each click, really helping charge him up to WATCH ME.

I did this only for a couple of minutes, so we could leave on a high note, on a real success. I immediately took him to an area where there were no squirrels, and allowed him to move out freely on the Flexi, sniff, run.

After each short session of concentration on me, around the objects of his obsession, I finished with a "free walk" in a safe environment.

Incrementally, we moved from just a few squirrels to more and more, and we just kept working on it every single day.

Now, I can walk him down the riverwalk and get his attention even when he spots one or two, rabbits as well. BUT. I still know he has a real taste for this, so if I note we're in a squirrel or rabbit rich area, I begin out on a short leash, and c/t for attention and other behaviors he will offer.

Will he ever be able to pass them by on a Flexi without obsessing, when they are running and kicking in his hardwired behaviors? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I now have is workable, and I can live with this. It's enough that on a short leash he is not straining, is not obsessing, but paying attention to me. And quite frankly, I find this utterly remarkable.

This didn't happen with punishers. I tried punishers for at least a year before I came to clicker training. It only exacerbated the problem. The more I punished, the more he focused on HIS obsession. It was clear I would either have to really escalate the punishment or find something else to try. I could not, just could NOT do the Koehler string-up, no matter how inappropriate his behavior.

So when we began clicker training, I realized the same tool I used to shape new behviors in neutral environments would probably help me with this problem as well. But unlike you, Courtney, I didn't start trying until at least a year after I was already full-time clicking. You're way ahead of me.

Please don't give up on working through this. It's time consuming, but it's so worth it. I now have a partner I can rely on to even do a retrieval when a squirrel runs by. A cat. A rabbit. I find this simply unbelievable, and that it happened without so much as a leash pop is thrilling beyond belief.

BTW, it was the same with obsessive barking. I did the very same type of approach, --which September Morn outlined in her splendid post called "Over-Barking" (September, how about reposting this to the OC-Assist List? Great post, would be so helpful to those with this problem). Just like September did, I began heavily reinforcing recalls, playing tug, etc. and using negative punishment (good things end) when he wouldn't play the game.

Again, I now have a dog who will still tense up, alert bark--BUT, he will instantly respond to my cue of "thank you" and come running to me for something--usually a treat, a game of tug, a game of fetch, whatever.

Keep up the good work Courtney. I have no doubt it would be much easier just to give up, start with a puppy who had been shaped from birth (oh, it IS easier!), but Murphy is such a GRAND dog with such a lovely temperament, so many plusses--that I don't want to see you give up on him. I believe you CAN move past this and get it to a workable situation. You have the skill, the motivation and certainly have a dog who may be one of the best teachers you will ever have.

Debi Davis
Tuscon, AZ
copyright 1999 Debi Davis


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