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Dogs that fixate on the wildlife, we all know them, right? Chase squirrels up trees, hunt rabbits, yank your arm off if a chipmunk races across the sidewalk. The dog you know would never recall off a deer.

The dogs and I did get out for our Tuesday walk today, despite the rain. As we were reaching the end of the trail both Zora and Dulce spaniel did something they almost never do, alerted to some critter up ahead to the degree they both struggled with a fast recall response. They really had to make a conscious choice to come instead of give in to their natural impulse to want to chase whatever it was. Their reaction told me we need to review recalls with wildlife distraction and reminded me of one of the ways I used to do that

Black and white Dulce the spaniel racing toward me with fur flying

When I was working with a full caseload, I’d see those dogs so often. Usually that wasn’t the primary complaint that caused their owners to walk in my door, but it was often a co-factor.

So I started training the wildlife on my property.

What? Yes, you read that right.

I figured if I could condition the rabbits, squirrels, birds and chipmunks, I could use them to my client’s benefit.

And it was super easy. All I had to do was feed them species appropriate food in the spots I wanted them to hang out in outside my fence line. And time the feeding so it happened the same time dogs were in the yard.

The wildlife that ate quickly learned to trust the fence. And that no dog could get them outside of it. It was great!

With dog after dog I now had a way to set up the environment for the dog to learn an alternative behavior to chasing wildlife. Predatory behavior never worked. The bird, squirrels, rabbits would hang there eating no matter what a dog behind the fence tried.

There was one dog I think of often, a little terrier type mix of a dog. His owner was in disbelief. She was sure he would never disengage from wildlife. Less than 5 minutes, the dog who had a life time of severe prey fixation, figured out if he focused on his owner it was more fun. Nothing he did made the rabbit 8′ away chewing on some grass move. Which then enabled the owner to reinforce the “focus on me” response, and begin to transfer that skill to other places.

Now that I have a neighbor with outdoor cats who I know hunts wildlife, I no longer train the wildlife in that way. I don’t want them immune to predator behavior around my property. Instead I give them good brush piles to hide in that I often top with thorny branches to discourage the cats from walking on. And I occasionally toss some food for the rabbits and chipmunks deep in those brush piles. It seems to work as there is still a healthy critter population around my yard. Thankfully though they all still seem smart enough to stay outside the bounds of the fence. But means I shall have to think up other ways to review come instead of chase to the dogs.

Tom who says he would never chase such things

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