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Squirrel Dog Training

Possum Method

Don't want your squirrel dog treeing possum? My answer to that is "GOOD LUCK"! If you don't mind your dog treeing an occational possum then read on. The following has been tried three times and it worked twice. Trap a possum. Don't show your dog the possum. Go to the woods with dog and possum. Leave dog in the truck and find a good tree to put the possum in, one you can shake him out of. Make a short track with the possum. Leave plenty of ground scent and put the possum up in the tree. Go get the dog and hunt toward the possum. If you have to keep the dog on a leash to get him to cross the track that is OK. Hopefully the dog will get close enough to wind the possum or pick up the track, may take a few minutes dog will likely try to locate the possum. You may have to give the tree a little shake to help the dog a little. Dog may bark, whine and show some interest in the possum. When dog has located the possum and hopefully treed on it then shake it out and let the dog wool it a little but not so much he looses interest, worry him a little with it. Put the possum back in the trap and the dog back in the truck. Go back and get the possum, find another good spot and put the possum up except this time don't leave any ground scent or any scent on the tree. Get the dog and go hunting, try to get the dog in the area downwind so he has a good chance of winding the possum. Hopefully he will wind the possum and locate and tree on it. When the dog trees put the possum down to him again. Get rid of the possum and go squirrel hunting. I am not telling you what to do. Whether or not you use a possum is your decision. I repeat, I have done this with three dogs that were not treeing. They were all curs. A one year old, a two year old and a three year old. The one year old and the three year old treed their own squirrel within an hour of being worked on the possum. The two year old didn't show any interest in the possum and never made a tree dog anyway. I think for this to work the dog has to be gamey to begin with. Don't take this method to the bank and deposit it. It is experimental. I wonder if a possum smells like a squirrel only stronger maybe? If you have a gamey dog that won't tree I think the possum work is worth a try at least before culling.....This is just one of the things I have done in the past in my attempts to "TRAIN" a dog. I do some experimenting. If somebody else should give this method a try I would like to know what kind of results it produced. I will be adding some more of my off the wall stuff as time goes on.

Pickin' out a Puppy

This is where it all starts most of the time. The first step is to decide on your breed and the cross you want your pup to come from. That is a gamble in itself. So, that being done it is time to look at a litter of pups. The goal is to pick the most promising prospect. I usually just let the breeder pick me one and if I don't see anyhing I don't like I just go with that. Everybody has their own ideas about picking a pup. Active, calm, playful, you name it. I have raised a few litters in my life and there are some things I have noticed. Everybody wants a pup that will hunt. Pups have a tendency to wander a little and investigate even as early as 6 weeks. No two pups are alike, even littermates. I think a pup should have an inborn desire to hunt and hunt to the front. I have never been able to teach a dog to hunt. I would like to meet the man who can teach a dog to hunt. Oftentimes you can see the inborn desire to hunt to the front in entire litters of pups as young as 6 weeks. Here is a little test. Take the whole litter or one or two out of the pen. Walk out across the yard. Do they follow behind? Grab your pants leg? This is not the time to shoot the breeze with the breeder about a squirrel dog you once owned. This is the time to focus on the pups. What if they are all up under your feet but not pulling on you pants leg or grabbing your shoestrings.? What if they are coming around your legs and between your legs doing their best to stay in front of you? You might have to step over and around them but I think it is a good sign when little puppies at least try to stay in front. What if you are walking around with them and you look back and one is about 20 ft. behind with his mind on something else? Seems to be off in a world of his own. Clap your hands, whistle, get his attentoin. See if he comes running and get in front of you again. Sometimes the breeder has played with the pups a lot and all the pups want to do is play. You might need about 5 minutes alone with them. What if you like one in particular but you clap your hands it startles the pup a little bit but in a minute it is back to normal. No big deal. Pups from time to time are startled by strange sights and sounds. Take advantage of an opportunity. What if a pup goes wandering off 20 ft or so. Pick up a rock and pitch it so it lands away from him so he can hear it. Did he look toward the sound where it landed, did it alert him to be curious as to what it was? What if a pup started looking for what it was and couldn't find it and actually pointed his head skyward and looked up? Might be the ugliest one in the bunch but that would be my pick. The point I am trying to make is focus your full attention on the pups. All this stuff and anything else you can think of only takes a few minutes. Pick one you have confidence in. If you don't have confidence in yourself and the pup then it is doubtful that you will give the pup the opportunity to develop and do what it is bred to do. Now that you have picked the pup that you have confidence in, you pay your money and head towards home with puppie in you lap. Thoughts start creepng into your mind. How am I going to train a squirrel dog? I never had a squirrel dog? Maybe I can find someone who has a trained dog that will let me hunt my puppie with? FORGET THAT STUFF-- You have chosen a pup that you have confidence in, now you need confidence in yourself. You have already started training. You did that when you walked around a yard with your pup. Take that pup for short walks as often as you can. Ten minutes as often as you can is enough in a little patch of woods even if it is only an acre or even a park. Give the pup a chance to gradually develop and allow it to do what it is bred to do.-- I recently visited the place where I grew up and played as a boy. I remembered it was a big place. Woods, field, it was huge. I hunted jay-birds with my BB gun. They place must have shrunk. Wasn't near as big as I remembered it. Wasn't two acres in the whole place house and all. Imagine what a half acre patch of woods must be like to a pup. Think about it. I hope all this makes sense.

Forty-Nine Days

Way back in 1971 I was big into the bird dogs. There was a book on the market called "GUN DOGS" written by Richard Wolthers. I trained a bird dog that year going strictly by the book. It was based on a study that was done concerning guide dogs for the blind. As best I can remember guide dogs were being started in their training at about 6 to 8 months of age. Some smart person decided that a puppys brain was as big as it is going to get at exactly 49 days of age and at that age it should start learning. Not 48 and not 50 but exactly 49 days of age. They decided to start some pups training at 49 days. The success rate at the time I believe was 10% and the pups that were started at 49 days had a success rate of 90%. --- I went by the book with the yard training of my setter pup. It was amazing the way that pup picked it up. Within a couple of weeks he would sit, stay and come and and within a month he would do these things on hand signals alone. By the time he was 6 months old he was beginning to take directional hand signals, stay, come, go left, go right and retrieving. The book concerns bird dogs and in the pointing part a bird wing on a fishing pole is used. Some people use a squirrel tail on a fishing pole for squirrel dogs. I was in a book store about a month ago and the book is still in print. There are also two other books by the same author. One is called "WATER DOG" and one is called "HOUSE DOG". Lots of bird dog and retriever people still swear by the 49 day method. If you happen to be in a bookstore you might want to thumb thru one of these books and see what you think. The obedience training instructions contained in this book works. It seems to me that the stay command may be an important one. I wonder if a dog was taught the stay command if it would come in handy in keeping one treed. The fact is I have done better with obedience training starting at a very young age. The problem with too much obedience training is that it might produce a mechanical dog that looks to you for commands instead of hunting.

The Nitty Gritty

There are probably as many ways to make a squirrel dog as there are squirrel hunters who make them. Volumns could be written on the subject. I have tried to narrow it down to what I think are the three most important factors in the development of squirrel dog.
1) Breeding--There are crossbreeds that are excellent, however, I believe that in order to increase the odds of ending up with a good dog is to start with a good bred pup. That is, a pup that is bred to hunt and tree squirrels. The breed is a matter of choice. I think that it is more important that a pup come from a long line of "producing" squirrel dogs than it is for the sire and dam to be great squirrel dogs themselves. The breed of dog and the line that a pup comes from is not something that should be taken lightly. Study, talk to dog people, gather as much information as possible before making a decision. When you buy a pup you are not buying that pups Mama or Daddy. You are buying an individual that they produced.
2) Confidence--This has more to do with the trainer than the dog. An owner is supposed to be an intelligent being. "THINK"!!! As an intelligent being an owner should have confidence in his ability to, at the very least, encourage a pup in the way that he should go. I think everyone will agree that patience is necessary. The more confidence you have in yourself and the dog, the more patience you will have. Everyone wants the kind of dog we all read about. The four month old overnight sensation is rare. A pup that starts at eight to ten months old is far more common. I think it is reasonable to expect a dog to give an indication that it is going to make a squirrel dog by one year of age if hunted. "If hunted", that is the next step.
3) Exposure--If you have read this far I can assume that what I have to say is either interesting or I can assume that you don't know how to train a dog. I don't know how to train a dog so that is where exposure to game comes into play. I won't tell you what to do. I will tell you what I do. I choose my breed. I choose the bloodline. I choose the cross. I have my new puppy in my lap and I have confidence in myself and my new puppy and I know it is going to take time and I am determined to be patient(patience is not my strong point). New puppy in pen, now what! This is my hunting dog so why not go hunting? Puppy has gotten to the point in a couple of days that he is glad to see me coming to the pen. He wants out so we load up in the truck. I know where there is an acre patch of woods. We go walking. I go slow and puppy investigates everything and I notice that puppy has a tendency to get in front of me. We take about a ten or fifteen minute walk. This is what is called exposure to game. Didn't see any squirrel but I bet that squirrels saw us cause I know that there are some squirrels in that acre patch of woods. This is all I do for the next several months. Sometimes we go twice a day. Sometimes we go three or four days in a row. I take a puppy to the woods as often as I can for short trips. I have done this many times with many dogs. I do this because I like to watch pups develop. Within a few weeks I might notice a pup run up ahead a short distance, stop look down in the woods then look back at me and come running back to me. Something in pup is making him want to go down in the woods but he is young and lacks confidence. I have confidence that puppy will gain more and more confidence the more I take him hunting. All this hunting is called "exposure" to game. Still haven't seen a squirrel. Sooner or later we will get lucky. By the time puppy is four or five months old we have to go to bigger woods because puppy has gotten to where he will swing on out on me now and then. He is hunting. Doesn't know what he is hunting but he sure is going somewhere. Sometimes I can see puppy put his feet up on a tree and smell up the trunk. There is no squirrel there and puppy has never seen a squirrel to my knowledge. Wonder what is going on? Puppy is starting to do more and more what he is bred to do. He doesn't know why, it is just in his genes. He is getting the opportunity to develop and he is being exposed to game. He has never seen a dead squirrel, hide, or tail. Sooner or later I think he will tree. Pearl treed her own wild in the woods squirrel when she was eight months and nine days old. She saw it about 75 ft away. Treed it right. She is squirrel crazy and has never tasted fur. Trigger winded one before he was eight months old, worked it hard, winded but did not bark. He laid down on his belly at the base of the tree and looked at me. It was hot that day. The squirrel was there, I saw it. Trigger and Pearl are as different as night and day. They are littermates. They are well bred. I have confidence and I am forcing myself to be patient. I am exposing them to game(taking them hunting). I think they are future squirrel dogs. I don't use hides, tails, or treats. I have never taught a dog to "speak". There are as many ways to train a dog as there are dog men. There are roll cages, training tubes and everything else anyone can come up with. I have nothing against these devices, if it works for you then do it. I think all these things may have their place, even hides, tails and treats but I don't overdo anything. Even exposure, woods time can be overdone. For pups, short trips are great, make it too long and pup may become tired and bored with the whole thing. Since a dog is just a dog and I am supposed to be an intelligent being I feel obligated to force myself to "THINK".

The Chase

I think that all cur and feist pups should be born with a desire to chase. They will chase very early in life. Stick, ball or anything else. I have noticed that if I throw a ball for a small pup that he will chase. Whether or not he retrieves doesn't matter. After a few day if I throw high the pup might start to watch the ball in the air, like a frisby dog or something. When he starts watching it in the air I say "look for him". Guess what? After awhile I can take pup and just say "look for him" and he will look up. Then I can make a throwing motion with my arm and say "look for him" and and he will look up for the ball with more intensity. A ball that isn't there. I don't fool him like this much because he will get wise to me. This look up when you say "look for him" can come in handy. If you happen to see a squirrel timbering while you are walking pup you can start saying "look for him" and there is a much better chance of the pup seeing the squirrel and getting some experience. I think the pup thinks the squirrel might come down like the ball and do his best to stay with the squirrel.


I have never taught a dog to speak. When a dog starts making an attempt to tree even if he isn't barking I talk to him telling him to "tree him up", "squirrel up" or whatever. I try to get excited trying to get the dog excited. Dog is likely to bark if he gets excited enough. There are many squirrel dogs that will bark(speak) on command. Here is an example. My dog named Knothead is chained to a big oak tree. If I go out there he will get excited because he wants me to unsnap him and go hunting. If I start saying "look for him" he will look up and if I keep on with "squirrel up" etc. he will bark up and look up that oak tree. I did not train him to do this he just put it together. I don't know how to train a squirrel dog. I just take them hunting and talk to them especialy when they are young. I get excited with them and try to encourage them in the way that I think they should go.

Tying at tree

Many experienced dog men have told me to always tie my dog at the tree. I don't tie my dog at the tree but that doesn't mean it isn't a good idea. It might even condition him to stay treed. Since I don't tie my dog at the tree I do sometimes put him on a leash. At the very least I always put my hands on my dog at the tree. I think this conditions him to being caught at the tree. There is nothing more aggravating than a dog you can't catch at the tree. If you plan on doing much competition hunting you better have a dog you can catch and leash at the tree. If there is one place a dog wants his freedom it is at the tree. There is a squirrel up and the dogs knows he can'tget him if he comes down and he knows he can't run with him if he timbers. There are a lot of things written about training a dog. The following is my thought. If a treedog had to be trained you might as well get a beagle and train it to hunt and tree squirrels. If a beagle had to be trained you might as well get a feist and train it to jump and run a rabbit. I would not want a dog that came from a line of dogs that had to be trained to do what they should be bred to do. I think it is all about naturals. Mack Ledbetter has a little female named Pearl. I raised Pearl til she was 11 months old. Pearl has never been trained by me to do anything. I only took her on short hunts but she has probably been to the woods more times that most old dogs. Heck. I didn't even take a gun til she was over 8 months old. I saw her work a squirrel and I saw her tree. I saw Pearl do what she is bred to do.

Trapped Squirrels

I have come to believe that trapped squirrels may have a place in starting a pup. Over the years I have had terrible luck using trapped squirrels. The squirrel seldom does what I want it to do. Most of the time it comes out of the trap so fast the dog doesn't even see it come out. Result, nothing, all the pup did was get to see a squirrel in a cage. I think if a trapped squirrel is used it should be used in a situation as close to a natural hunting situation as possible. I have learned that if a squirrel is taken a mile or more from where it was caught it is more likely to be disoriented when released and more likely to jump from tree to tree after it is released and thereby giving the pup a decent workout. Now, if I release a squirrel in strange woods I hang the trap a few feet up on a tree out of the dogs reach with the door pointed down at an angle so that when the squirrel is turned loose he has no place to go but jump to the ground running. After I set up the situation I then go get the dog and go hunting in the direction of the trap so that hopefully the pup will locate and tree the squirrel with as little help from me as possible. Think about it. Dog locates squirrel. Squirrel is up over dogs head. Hopefully dog will tree or at least show an interest in what is up. I release squirrel, squirrel jumps to ground with pup after him and squirrel goes back up. Since squirrel isn't in his normal territory he may timber good and may even jump to the ground again. This is as close to a natural situation as I can come up with. This method has worked good for me.

Cold Hard Facts of Life

No matter what you do, no matter what breed you choose, no matter how well bred a pup is, there are some that just DO NOT MAKE IT. It is impossible to name all the faults that can show up in a dog. In my opinion a dog should be showing some inclination to tree a squirrel by the time it is a year old. That doesn't mean that at a year old I would the dog cull if it isn't treeing squirrels consistently but I think a dog should be treeing at least in its second season if hunted.


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