Play in Mind

Exploring the nature and nurture of play—past, present, and future

Chasing Squirrels

Play, sport, or predation?

In Disney’s animated film Up, a mad scientist has outfitted his dogs with devices that let them speak their minds. What they have to say comes mostly as no surprise. Dug the Dog, for example, says, “I just met you; I love you!” But the funniest bit recurs. Dug and his meek friends, including the cunning leader of the pack, Alpha, always interrupt themselves mid-sentence when a squirrel appears or even when the mere thought of a squirrel appears. “My master made me this collar so that I may speak. SQUIRREL!”

Charlie the Dog, our own real-life doodle, is similarly distractible. Say “squirrel” and his ears perk up and his head tilts. Usually he accompanies this with an interrogatory vocalization, “Arunhn”. So we need to take care not to start his engine. If the Animal Planet narrator utters the S-word while our dog’s watching his favorite program, Charlie may rise up on two feet to peer into the television. Or, baffled by its unnatural lack of dimension and aroma, Charlie moves to sniff behind the screen.

If a word of power exists in the dog world, “squirrel” surely is it.

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I expect that squirrels exert this pull on dogs because they are both thrilling to chase and skilled at evasion. Here, in our neighborhood in the cold jungle between two Great Lakes, the abundant squirrel population finds no trouble evading dogs. Dogs, even one as fleet as Charlie the Dog, operate at a basic disadvantage—their four paws limit them to two dimensions. Squirrels, with their clever hands, exploit three. Every climbable fence, bird-feeder, bush, sapling, or stately nearby Maple gives them access to the canopy and safety. There they perch and loudly scold and quaah at their hapless pursuers. (You can make this sound by putting your tongue against your front teeth and sucking it in quickly.) In squirrel talk the cry means, roughly, “I handled this chump.”

After the object of his desire has disappeared up a tree, Charlie seems to think it literally disappeared. Charlie has no ability to “tree” a squirrel or to understand where the squirrel has gone. Once the rodent moves above Charlie’s plane of vision, his brain neglects it.

Charlie the dog
Scott Eberle

Charlie has chased squirrels thousands of times, but has not caught his first. This has made chasing a squirrel a game with no other object than the chase—for him and for me, too. Nobody’s the worse for wear afterword; the dog is delighted, the squirrel is on his toes, and I’ve enjoyed spectating at two superb athletic performances. But as Charlie begins to leave his long puppyhood behind, I am starting to see a change in the game that brings up an important point about play.

When a squirrel appears 50 or 100 feet away Charlie usually accelerates, and within a few steps reaches a top speed that I guess to be about 25 miles per hour. This lets him rapidly close the distance. Usually he huffs and ruffs along the way, though, giving the squirrel plenty of time to plan his escape onward and upward.

Occasionally he has added stalking to the routine, closing some of the distance before exploding away. Not that he’s so clever as to feign indifference, as a cat would—restraint that pure is far beyond him as the predatory impulse lies hidden in this playful domestic wolf. Yet I begin to see some efficiency in his method, more purpose in his approach, and more sport too, possibly, as his skills improve. Also, crucially to my eye, he seems less purely at play, with less galumphing and no gleeful yowling, and with a predatory gaze more keenly focused.

Charlie has evened the odds so much that I’m now starting to feel some apprehension for the local squirrels. And so as we walk in the broad meadow in the nearby park, I hold on to the leash if the squirrel seems too close for comfort, guarding against the object of play becoming prey.

I’ll say it again; I’ve learned as much about play from watching Charlie the Dog as from reading a couple of long shelves of books.

Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., is vice president for play studies at The Strong, editor of its American Journal of Play, and lead contributor to its re:Play Blog.

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