Many of us who have dogs also have a cat or two (or more!) Sometimes the cat has lived with us before we add a dog, sometimes the dog was there before the cat, and usually the introductions are fairly uneventful, especially if you have a “dog savvy” cat (one who doesn’t run at the drop of a hat!)
Other times we have a cat who maybe has never lived with a dog, or who is just naturally skittish. Or the dog we have is a new puppy or a dog that hasn’t been around cats who just wants to investigate or play, or a herding breed who feels the need to corral any animals in the vicinity! I’ve had a few people asking me what to do to fix this, and even worked with a client recently to solve this problem.
I have two “herders” at home, Tilly, my German Shepherd, and Pixie, my Miniature Australian Shepherd. They both came into the house as puppies (and became “foster failures”) so they’ve always been around cats, but because of their breeding, they feel the need to chase the cats and nip at their heels. Needless to say the cats do not appreciate this.
I will be the first to admit that I did everything wrong with my own dogs. That’s right, I took the lazy way out, and my poor cats suffer for it. Instead of doing what I do with my private clients, I taught Tilly and Pixie a solid “leave it” cue and we left it at that. Now the sequence in my home is: Cat walks through, dogs chase, I say “leave it,” dogs come over and sit in front of me. It seems alright, but my cats would prefer if the dogs didn’t chase them at all!
With my client, Misty, I took a much different (much better) approach. Misty, a one year old lab mix, was recently adopted by nice family with two 11 year old cats who had never been around dogs before. The female cat was willing to stand her ground when Misty became inquisitive, but the male was afraid and would run. The running excited Misty and she would give chase. It became a fun game to her so she began to bark to get the cats to run from her. Her new family was afraid that she was becoming aggressive toward the cats and that they wouldn’t be able to keep her*.
The first thing I had them do was to put Misty on a drag line. A drag line is an old leash, or a piece of rope with a few knots in it that allows you to control the dog by just reaching down and grabbing it, or by stepping on it to prevent the dog from chasing. This step is key! You must prevent the behavior so that your dog cannot practice it. The more she can practice chasing the cats, the better she’ll get at it, the more she’ll like it, the harder it will be to fix. (This applies to any behavior, if your dog finds it rewarding, they’re going to keep doing it!)
Next we introduced the clicker. The clicker marks a behavior we like, and is immediately followed with a treat which lets the dog know, “That’s what I want you to do!”
First we taught Misty to sit, and to lie down with the cats no where in sight. Then we brought in the female cat, since she was the least likely to run. With Misty (on leash) and the cat about 12 feet away from each other I had the family click and treat Misty each time she looked at the cat, but remained quiet and calm. If she got excited they were to walk her away from the cat and have her sit or down. She was only allowed to walk toward the cat if she remained calm. We kept the sessions short to reduce stress on the cat, and within 2 weeks we were able to have Misty sniff the female cat without barking or attempting to chase her.
The male cat was a bit more of a challenge, as he would try to run as soon as he saw Misty, regardless of the distance between them. I had the family place him in a crate and we clicked for calm behaviors around him in the crate. Although this seems like it would be easy, Misty had had so much success getting him to run in the past that she put in a good effort barking and pawing at the crate trying to get him to run. After about 2 weeks Misty could lie quietly around the crate. We then started the same process as we did with the female cat, but at a distance of 30 feet (with a set of stairs in between.) It took another few weeks, but Misty can now be in the same room with both cats and remain quietly lying on the floor. She will still jump up if one of the cats bolts for one reason or another, but does not give chase.
Why is it different for Misty than for my own naughty dogs? Because we changed Misty’s association with the cats. My dogs are self-rewarding by chasing, Misty has been rewarded for remaining calm, so while my dogs think chasing is fun stuff, Misty knows that she will more likely receive a reward for remaining calm.
So I’ve temporarily failed my dogs, but I’m working on teaching them what I would rather them do. Tilly has had more “practice” so she’s (not surprisingly!) a bit harder to fix. Pixie though, is making great strides with the click to calm!
*If you are afraid that your dog is being aggressive towards your cats, please contact a professional trainer!