Bells and Whistles and Squirrels

It’s the time of year when there are plenty of squirrels around, especially as this autumn is so warm. The little furries are collecting as much food as possible to store up to last them through the winter, as a result they’re on the ground a lot more than at other times of the year.

Willow is half terrier. Terriers are bred to kill small furries, mainly rats and mice but squirrels will do just as well. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago we think Willow did just that – she disappeared off into some dense vegetation and didn’t come back for a significant time, even when called. When she did eventually re-appear it was with bright red fresh blood all over her muzzle, blood which it became quickly apparent wasn’t hers. We don’t know for sure what she had killed, but we suspect given how much she loves to chase them that it was a squirrel.

Squirrel with nut

This experience, together with others where she has chased but not killed, has shown that when Willow gets on the scent of a squirrel and becomes very excited she also becomes deaf to our calls. However, despite it being her nature, I’d prefer that my dog didn’t become a major killer of wildlife. So, what to do?

The first step was to treat Willow the same way as we do to stop Cat from catching birds in the garden – bell her. I put together a clip with three cat bells on it and for the next little while whenever we let her off her lead we clipped the bells on to her harness as a squirrel early warning system. The jury is still out on how effective this was – the squirrels and everyone in the vicinity could certainly hear Willow coming and she didn’t catch any squirrels while she was using it but that could just be coincidence. To be fair although it bothered her a little bit (it was probably quite loud to her) it was a lot more acceptable to her than I suspect a muzzle would have been. That could be an option for some dogs but, given that she dislikes having a harness put on her, I suspect that a muzzle would never have been acceptable to Willow.

Whilst out with Willow wearing her Squirrel Early Warning System TM we happened to get into conversation with another dog owner, mainly because he wanted to know why our dog was wearing bells. He’d had various behavioural issues with his dog and had consulted a pet behaviourist; one thing that he said struck home with me, which was the fact that when you call your dog they can hear the tone of your voice and if it’s slightly panicked they are more likely to ignore it. Hence it’s better to train your dog to come to a whistle rather than a call.

Armed with this information I went out and bought a silent dog whistle. Only it isn’t because apparently if it’s silent you can’t gauge how effective it is. So it’s sold as a silent dog whistle but it makes a noise. Go figure. For the next day or two at odd times I fed really tasty treats to Willow at the same time as blowing the whistle. I then tested it by blowing it inside the house while Willow was in the garden. A streak of energy charged through the cat flap and sat in front of me looking expectantly up at me. So that seemed to have worked. I also tried it a few times with her off the lead with the same result – she immediately came running up, looking for food. Easiest bit of training I’ve ever done with her!

So for now, the bells are off and the whistle is in; if we need to go back to the bells we will. I’m hoping the squirrels of Berkshire can all go about their foraging a little easier now!