Before I ever fumbled through “babysitting” my grand-dog Sheriff, I was remarkably neutral about squirrels.
Even many years ago when I discovered a family of tree-dwellers squatting in our attic the very day we moved into our house, I gave them a pass.
And the chewed up corner of the garage door we replaced last fall? It had wood rot anyway. Another pass.
Despite the money and effort we’ve spent protecting our house from these twitchy gray fur balls, I remained somewhat tolerant. After all, squirrels are kinda cute. Entertaining, even.
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They inspire me with all that planning ahead for winter stuff. It’s therapeutic to look out the window and realize other mammals can be (slightly) more nervous than oneself. These critters have admirable reflexes, amazing climbing skills and are probably nature’s best role models for frolicking.
Since the Sheriff started patrolling the neighborhood with me, I cringe at the sight of a squirrel. As is the case with many dogs, they are the enemy. The. Enemy. They must be barked at with peak rage, chased down and…and…what? I wonder. What would grand-doggie do if the leash ever slipped from my hand? I vow to never find out.
Unwittingly, I have been doing dog leash Pilates. As gym rats would say, my arms are ripped. (For me, anyway.)The only equipment I need to strengthen biceps is Sheriff, a leash and a route full of squirrels.
But it’s all for autumnal survival. Tremendous oak trees stand sentry on my street. Pristine lawns have now become acorn spittoons. Other nutty trees are everywhere.
The squirrels are partying, and Sheriff is hell-bent on making arrests. He’s now over 60 pounds of pure muscle combined with a billion kilowatts of youthful enthusiasm. I am losing my mind. But not my grip.
Avoidance is part of the strategy. I have glanced at enough video games to realize when I walk Sheriff I must imitate a Mario Bros character or a vintage Pac-Man.
We head in one direction, I spot a squirrel, then we U-turn only to spot three more dancing on the next yard. I U-turn the dog again. Repeat, repeat until the coast is clear. It could take us 15 minutes to get home when we’re only a block away.
But cue the Nintendo fail music, there are times I don’t win. Especially now. The acorns won’t stop dropping and the critters won’t stop shopping. Surprise close-up encounters are inevitable.
As they say in “Game of Thrones”: “Winter is coming.” I’m fairly certain George R. R. Martin lifted that line from a squirrel chat room.
This is why I attend intermediate dog training lessons with my future daughter-in-law. This is why I Google search Cesar the whisperer guy and wind up uttering phrases like “The prey-drive problem.” This is why my hands smell like chicken liver treats.
“Positive reinforcement!” The experts say. It works. Eventually. Except when it doesn’t.
There’s always that one antagonizing squirrel that sets off Sheriff. I can’t blame the dog. I tell him, “Yeah, pretty sure that’s the rascal who chewed up our garage door.”
I frequently broach the subject with seasoned dog owners.
“Does Rufus put his nose at the base of every tree, and sniff straight up only spot the enemy frozen like a statue?”
“Does Lady go all bipedal like a walking bear when she sees a squirrel on a lower branch?”
“Does your dog ever get airborne when a critter scales a trunk?”
Me: A human, digging two feet in the grass. Dog: Barking madly up a tree and launching to the heavens, tethered only by a leash. I call this scenario “flying a dog kite.”
But I have a fanny pack full of Bil-Jacs and a heart full of hope. When Sheriff lets a nut-hoarding jerk pass without causing a ruckus, I pop him a treat. Good boy! We’re getting there.
I love this dog. Squirrels, not so much now. Sheriff is training me, too.
Reach Denise Snodell at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @DeniseSnodell