It’s hard to argue with Allen Franklin’s résumé as a squirrel-dog trainer. His mountain curs have amassed an incredible 26 world championships in squirrel, coon, and bench show competitions, and the dogs he is hunting with now are the third and fourth generation born on his Ohio farm. But your dog doesn’t have to come from such a bloodline to make a crackerjack squirrel dog. Over the years, I’ve known hunters who pursued bushytails with all manner of canines, from border collies to bluetick coonhounds. Many breeds of dog (and plenty of mongrels, for that matter) have the keen intelligence and prey drive required to make a master squirrel hunter.
Franklin offered up some key training tips that have helped him achieve such success. These won’t work with every pooch, but squirrel hunting over dogs is inexpensive and exciting, and it’s a great way to introduce kids to the sport. So give your four-legged companion a crash course to see if he has what it takes.
1. Bonding and Yard Work
Franklin notes that all training begins here. Ideally, this occurs when your dog is young, he says, but even if your canine companion is up in years, this is the building block from which to start his hunting education. Primarily, this work serves to make your dog follow your commands in the woods, but training in the basic commands also teaches you and your dog to work together as a team, an often-overlooked benefit of basic yard work. Besides the basic sit, stay, and come commands, Franklin wants his young dogs to lead and to speak (this will become important later), and he says they need to be comfortable being leashed.
2. Introduction to Squirrels
Franklin starts his young dogs with a squirrel tail tied to a pole. This teaches them to follow their prey instincts and helps them become familiar with the scent of squirrels, but it is also a visual training method. Unlike hounds and bird dogs, which operate almost entirely off scent, squirrel dogs need to master hunting with their nose and eyes. After tying the squirrel tail in a tree, Franklin asks the dog to speak. These first “treed” barks are rewarded, and this builds the foundation for more complex training. Sometimes Franklin uses a live squirrel in a cage trap, and he always places these squirrels in trees so the dogs get accustomed to looking up.
3. Live Pursuit
When you decide it’s time to introduce your dog to wild squirrels, you’ll want to make things as easy as possible. It may sound simplistic, but for Franklin, that means starting out in small patches of forest where there are a lot of squirrels.
“I try to set my pups up where they will always hit squirrel track and in smaller timber where they have a chance to see the squirrel,” says Franklin. When the dogs tree a squirrel, he praises them and encourages them to bark.
These live sessions will ignite the dogs’ prey drive and, bit by bit, they’ll realize that they are going to the woods with a purpose. It won’t take long for instinct to kick in. Once it does, positive reinforcement and repetition will make squirrel chasing part of the dogs’ nature.
4. Short, Positive Training Sessions
Keeping your dog eagerly engaged in the learning process is especially important early on.
“A short session every day is better than one or two long sessions a week,” Franklin says. These short sessions may be a brief obedience lesson in the yard, a 20-minute session of chasing a squirrel tail on a fishing pole, or a quick walk through the autumn woods. One key is to be patient and allow the dog to figure things out at his own pace. Most pups will eventually get it, but boredom can hinder the process and lead to training setbacks.
Another secret? Always end each short session on a positive note. These brief training sessions will ensure that you and your dog look forward to the experience, which increases your odds of success.
4 Dog Breeds For Squirrel Hunting
1. Mountain Cur
The mountain cur was bred as a farm dog by early American pioneers. Blending the blood of hounds and terriers produced a compact, intelligent canine that served as herder, hunter, and watchdog. Today the mountain cur is one of the most popular squirrel-hunting breeds.
Most people associate beagles with rabbits, but these scent hounds have a strong prey drive, an outstanding nose, and a loud voice, and with proper training they make excellent squirrel dogs. They also make wonderful family companions.
3. Jack Russell Terrier
Many new Jack Russell owners find out the hard way that there’s a huge personality in that compact four-legged package, and for that reason this breed is frequently given up for re-adoption. But Jack Russells are extraordinarily intelligent and courageous, and have a prey drive out of proportion to their petite stature. Introduce them to squirrels and let instinct do the rest.
4. Border Collie
The border collie is considered the most intelligent of all dog breeds, but this brilliance sometimes manifests itself in bad behavior, especially if the dog isn’t given a job. Task-oriented border collies pick up squirrel hunting very quickly.