Training and Tips to Keep Your Dog Safe & Protect Wild Critters

Find out what you need to do to keep your dog safe from small wild animals and prevent interactions with expert tips and training guidance.

Published June 12, 2023
Father pointing at canal with son and dog

Sooner or later, chances are your dog is going to encounter a common wild critter, whether it's a squirrel, opossum, racoon, or rabbit. When that happens, and your dog comes into close contact with a small wild animal, you're probably thinking about protecting your dog from bites and keeping these small critters safe. These situations can be high-stress, but with a little planning, you can avoid animal bites on your dog and keep local wildlife safe, too!

Keeping Dogs Safe From Wildlife

Woman walking dogs in an autumn woodland

Most of the time, small animals like squirrels and opposums aren't dangerous to dogs. They can bite your dog, however. If that happens, your first thought should be to address their injury and take them to vet right away. Sounds like a pain, right? The easiest way to deal with this situation is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

According to Dr. Zac Pilossoph, "The best a pet parent can do to keep their pets away from wildlife is, when out of the house, keep them on a leashed chest harness and do not allow free roaming where their pet can go explore unsupervised."

We know this isn't always possible - maybe you have small wild animals, such as racoons, opossums, and squirrels that regularly roam around your yard. But when you're leaving home for the great outdoors, a leash and harness are a very good idea.

"A leash makes it near impossible for a pet to approach a wild animal on their own accord," Dr. Pilossoph added. "When at the house, again, it revolves around supervising pets and not leaving them outside for extended periods of time alone."

Need to Know

Yes, rabies is a serious, life-threatening issue. However, most common critters, such as opossums, rats, and squirrels, don't normally carry the virus. Racoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes are the most common carriers of rabies.

Protecting Wildlife From Your Dog

Your dog is on-leash and should be safe from most encounters with common critters. But what if a curious squirrel gets too close? It's heartbreaking, but sometimes a dog can get their mouth on a small wild animal and do some damage. Again, your best defense is to control your dog and avoid situations where an encounter is likely.

According to Katie Bagnall-Newman, the Associate Director of Nature Programs at Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, N.Y.: "If I had to pick my top advice for protecting wildlife from dogs, it would be to follow posted leash guidance when at parks/natural spaces and work on recall with your dog for those areas where dogs are allowed to be off leash!"

Maintaining control is the most important thing to keep in mind. Make sure you have a secure hold of your dog's leash, especially if they're a larger breed. You don't want to be put off balance if they lunge at a small animal. Also, make sure you are looking around, paying attention at all times when small critters are around. The vast majority will take one look at your dog, then turn tail and run.

Training Your Dog to Keep Them Safe

Many dog breeds were developed for hunting, so prey drive is always a consideration. They want to chase wild animals, especially when those small animals run away. This rapid movement triggers a chase response in dogs that is hard to train away.

However, it is possible to control dogs, even when they have very high prey drives. "Strong dog training goes a long way to protect your dog and the wildlife around them," Bagnall-Newman said. For proof, just look at sporting dog competitions where hunters expect dogs to perform very specific tasks under stressful conditions. You probably aren't training your dog to hunt (unless that's your thing), but your dog is just as capable of learning what to do in these situations.

  • Familiarize your dog with wild animals: It's a lot to ask a dog to be chill when they see some strange, new animal out in the wild. Introduce them to wildlife in a controlled way, on leash.
  • Teach them to "Sit" and "Stay" on command reliably: Almost every dog learns to sit and stay. The difference is, doing these things when they're distracted. Train your dog in public, and work on these skills a lot.
  • Reward them when they sit after seeing a wild animal: Next, take your dog somewhere (on leash) where wildlife are present and run a simple exercise. When they see an animal, give them the "Sit" command, and reward the heck out of them with treats and praise - but only if they're calm.
  • Drill, drill, and drill some more: The trick is to do this over and over. Repeated practice is how canine athletes perform specific tasks under high-stress situations (and what's more high stress than chasing a squirrel with your owner running behind you, yelling at you non-stop?)

This is just the foundation you can build on to help protect wildlife from your dog. It's never fun to see a wild animal get hurt because it couldn't get away from your dog fast enough. Being in control of your dog has many other benefits too, including keeping them safe when you're out together.

Need to Know

Some animals are much more dangerous for your dog to encounter. In many places across the United States, venomous species, such as rattlesnakes and scorpions, are hard to spot, and can seriously injure your dog.

What if An Opossum Bites My Dog?

Opossum tries to bite dog

Everyone thinks of opossums "playing dead," and they definitely do this if they're frightened. It's actually more a reflex to extreme stress, and it isn't good for the opossum. Rarely, however, one of these little guys might decide to bare their teeth and defend themselves.

According to Dr. Zac Pilossoph, "Opossums can bite, but it is not too common. If your pet is bitten, then the good news is that opossums are not considered a high vector for rabies. However, their mouths are not very clean, so if a significant amount of blood is seen, measures should be taken to clean the area as quickly as possible and have the bite area evaluated by a veterinarian."

Even if the bite appears to be superficial and you don't see any blood, remain cautious. Don't assume your dog won't develop any problems later. "If it is a mild bite where no blood is seen, then antiseptically scrubbing at home may suffice, but pictures of the site should be taken daily to monitor for complications," Dr. Pilossoph said.

What if a Racoon Bites My Dog?

If your dog has been bitten by a raccoon, it's crucial to act quickly and appropriately. Do not attempt to handle or capture the raccoon yourself, as it could be carrying rabies or other diseases. Instead, try to keep track of the animal's location if it's safe to do so, and contact local animal control to report the incident.

Your focus should be on your dog's well-being. Avoid touching the bite wound with your bare hands to prevent infection. Immediately take your dog to the veterinarian, even if the wound appears minor. Raccoon bites can transmit rabies and infection. Your vet will assess the wound, administer necessary treatment, which may include cleaning the wound, administering antibiotics, and possibly giving a booster for the rabies vaccine if your dog has already been vaccinated.

If a bite didn't break the skin, or you're sure it's superficial, you might be able to perform first aid on your own. However, it's better not to take chances. Especially if the animal was a racoon, skunk, fox, coyote, or another canid. Go to the vet to be sure your dog is OK.

Need to Know

It is essential to make sure you vaccinate your dog against rabies, and always check that their boosters are up-to-date. Rabies is a lethal virus and is dangerous to humans as well as pets.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Bitten, and It's Bleeding a Lot

This can be scary, but remaining calm is your best option. If you can do it quickly, figure out what did the biting. But don't spend a lot of time on this, and instead address your dog's wound. No matter what bit your dog, take these steps:

  • Carry your dog to a safe place. Don't let them walk, as this can increase blood flow. Take them away so you can address the injury.
  • Check the wound. You need to know how bad it is, and what's damaged. The bite might not look to bad, but if it's bleeding, something is wrong. You don't need to spend a lot of time, just figure out where they're bleeding.
  • Stop the bleeding. This is priority No. 1. Apply pressure to the bite area with a clean washcloth or towel. Wrapping the wound probably won't last long. If you have a cone, you can place this on your dog to keep them from licking.
  • Don't worry about cleaning the wound, and go to your vet. It's better to get your dog into your veterinarian as soon as possible. You may need emergency vet services, depending on the bite. Your vet will clean the wound.

The biggest concern here is that a venemous animal or one with rabies bit your dog. If your dog is bleeding a lot, don't risk it, and just take them in to the vet. Trying to perform first aid when you aren't sure what caused the bite, or if the bite is bad enough, just wastes time. The good news is, these types of serious bites are rare when your dog encounters small mammals and common critters while outdoors.

Take Responsibility for Your Dog

Understanding how to handle your dog's contact with wild creatures is crucial for both your pet and wildlife. You can protect your dog and natural ecosystems by taking precautions and responding responsibly before, during, and after an encounter. Keep your dog on a leash, visit your veterinarian if your dog is bitten, and care for the wound appropriately following an encounter. It can be stressful in the moment, but if you've trained your dog well and you calmly handle the encounter, you will have a fun story to tell instead of a potentially expensive vet bill to deal with.

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Training and Tips to Keep Your Dog Safe & Protect Wild Critters