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Luke, the Squirrel Terrier


You’ve heard of a fox terrier; he goes after guys who look like the red fox below.


Fox terriers don’t chase after them, like in the movies; those are foxhounds. Fox terriers root out the hunted fox who’s gone to his underground lair. That’s his specialty, to expose the fox who’s hiding, thus ending the hunt for the hounds and riders.

You’ve heard of rat terriers; they go after guys like this.


In the last century rat terriers were useful on grain farms, because the rats are no dummies; they like to go where the grain is, typically living in a barn so they could always grab a meal. Rat terriers killed the rats, sometimes hundreds an hour, so those little dogs were a farmer’s best friend. (Today they make great companions.)

Today on our walk, I found out that my dog Luke, officially a rat terrier mix, is really a squirrel dog. He’s never tugged so hard on his leash before—and we saw half a dozen of them in our four-block walk this afternoon. This is a busy time of year for squirrels, they’re storing food for the winter. Autumn is harvest time for squirrels—and today was almost harvest time for Luke.

If I’d let him chase a squirrel, would he have killed it? Or would the squirrel have outrun him and jumped up a tree?

I don’t know, and I didn’t want to find out. Not today anyway. Someday I might let him go after one just to see what happens.

Now don’t worry your Old Yeller head about poor Mr. Squirrel; he’s nothing but a rat with a fancy tail. Rats and squirrels are both rodents, mammals with incisors that never stop growing, so they have to gnaw on things. Acorns aren’t just dinner, they’re like a trip to the squirrel dentist. And yes, squirrels are “cute” when you see them in Central Park, but here in smalltown Indiana they’re pests as often as not; there’s a whole industry of squirrel-defying bird feeders, because one squirrel will eat an entire stash of birdseed before the cardinals and jays and chickadees even know where to look.

Some hunters I know, the human kind, like to kill squirrels and eat ’em. The rest of us Hoosiers co-exist with squirrels; we don’t harm them and they don’t harm us. Meanwhile, hang your birdfeeder on a string so the squirrels don’t think they’ve just found a 24-hour Denny’s.

I don’t know whether squirrels carry rabies, but Luke got his shot this week. Took it like a man, too, and didn’t whimper.

Once I know he’s protected, I don’t care if he wants to go after a tree-dwelling rat. I’m curious whether he wants to chase or kill or eat. Whatever you do, buddy, don’t drag him over to lay him at my feet. I don’t do squirrel stew.

Hunting is a respected part of the culture here. Though I don’t care to participate in it, I don’t have a problem with killing Bambi. There are hundreds of thousands of white-tailed deer in Indiana and they cause a lot of destruction, including fatal car accidents. I’ve encountered several deer while driving in northern Indiana; the general rule is to brake if you can do it safely, but don’t swerve. If you’re going to hunt, then eat what you kill, don’t just kill for the “sport” of it.

What does squirrel-chasing mean to Luke? I’m curious to find out, but not while he’s on a leash. And I don’t trust him enough yet to take him off it.

We went to the park yesterday; I was tempted to let him run, but I didn’t. There were no fences and I’m still learning his habits. He’s excellent about coming when I call him in the house, but I haven’t tested him out on open land, much less when he’s got squirrel on the brain. I have to be patient with this mutual learning process we’re going through. I won’t even let him loose in my yard, though I do think he’s figured out where home is. I’m trying to slowly enlarge his world, so that on our walks, sometimes we go east and circle back, sometimes another direction. Home is always at the center, the beginning and the end of our walk. It’s fascinating to watch him learn. I have to remind myself not to expect him to graduate from high school in a week.

He knows we always go in and out by the back door. He knows the sound of his leash because the chain rattles. He knows that no matter how excited he is as we start to go out, he has to settle down enough for me to attach the leash; he knows when we get back not to go very far until I get him unhooked. He knows when we go out that we always head for the basketball pole, whether he has to “go” or not; I think he’s learning to lift his leg there, for show if no other reason, otherwise we never set out. Once we’re walking he lifts his leg two dozen times whether he needs to or not, but I don’t care as long as he does his business somewhere. If he defecates too he knows he gets elaborate praise.

When it’s rainy out, as it has been the past few days, he knows to wait in the kitchen, because I’ll towel him off. He rather likes that, I think. Then he shakes himself, runs around like a crazy person for a minute, and comes back to lick my hand.

If I want him to take a drink of water, I put an ice cube in his dish; he noses at it, walks around for five seconds, then gets a good drink.

He’s figured out what the refrigerator is for, that occasionally he gets food out of there, but mostly I do. He doesn’t act disappointed if it’s not his time.

He’s not manipulative; a lot of dogs are, but not this guy. If food’s around he’s interested, but he doesn’t beg or whine or act obnoxious.

When I give him a treat he runs into the other room so no one else will get it; the Humane Society told me he was “jealous of his food.” Here he doesn’t have any competition so I feel no need to correct him.

I’m unsure of the best treats to buy, and solicit your recommendations. The ones he’s got now are chewy and made to look like meat.

Dogs have little sense of taste, which is why they eat so fast. Their enjoyment of food comes from how it smells.

When I make up human food for him, as opposed to the good pellets he’s used to, his dish tends to walk as he eats. What’s cute about Luke is he then walks it back to where it goes.

One last thing: besides all the squirrels today, we also encountered a little dog staked out in its front yard. The other dog barked a fair amount; Luke wanted to check it out, but he didn’t bark back and wasn’t hostile. With Harlee next door, the big Doberman puppy, Luke felt a need to test and be on his guard, while Harlee was big and dumb and gentle. Terriers are fearless, they don’t get intimidated by a bigger dog; my neighbor Debbie and I are hoping Luke and Harlee become friends soon.

I love my little guy; he’s almost perfect. Funny thing, though, he can’t play fetch to save his life. The stuffed one-eyed kitty is starting to get a little action, but the only toy Luke really likes is his chew-bone.++