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Today we are going to talk about life with dogs and cats in the home. So many of us have and love both, but how do you make sure they live in harmony together? What skills are necessary to ensure your dog doesn't chase your cat? What can you do with a dog who does chase the cat? Here are some tips to help your dog live in harmony with the other critters in your home.
My sister is an avid cat enthusiast. Of course I went to the other side with the dogs. When I mentioned to her that I was planning a post about life with Cats and Dogs, she reminded me of a story she loves to tell as it represents the different personalities of her two cats at the time better than any other descriptions could. While in between residences in her 20's, she moved back home for a short period, bringing her cats, Billie and Roger with her. Quincey, the Rottweiler had lived with cats as my mother was a tried and true cat AND dog lover. Billie was a skittish type of cat. The type that you really only know exists because there's less in the food bowl and more in the litter box. Roger was the polar opposite with all of the quiet confidence in the world, he was always in the midst of all of the action.
At six months old, Quincey was excited to introduce herself to the new playmates in her house! Roger and Quincey quickly formed a friendship which Billie wanted no part of. The first time Billie met Quincey, he ran and of course, Quincey gave chase. They were mid way up the stairs when Roger, without hesitation, leapt between the two, all hackles out to make him look 3 times the size, hissing and swatting. Quincey needed no further information on this - her lesson was learned! She never chased Billie again. In fact, she would actually leave the room at times when she saw Billie creeping in. She and Roger continued to be buds until my sister moved out, taking Roger and Billie with her.
This speaks to the first point I'd like to make. The relationship your dog and cat develop will depend a great deal on what type of dog and cat you have. If you have a Billie, they won't likely have a relationship, but they will need to co-exist, which means you'll have to work hard to ensure they can do so peacefully. If you have a Roger, you may see a great relationship develop if you nurture the right parts and insist on a few basic rules.
Something of importance to note: If your dog has stimulation or aggression issues towards other animals, it's imperative that you not allow them free access to the cat before you are 100% certain they'll make the right choices. I would highly recommend you consult with a qualified behaviourist to get on a training program tailored to your needs.
Proper management steps are the things you'll do during the training process to ensure your dog is not rehearsing the wrong behaviour and to ensure that the cat is kept from harm. It takes an average of 6 weeks to change a habit. Progress will likely be made quicker if you are starting with a clean slate of a dog who doesn't already get excited about chasing the cat. During this time, you'll need some management tools to keep your dog's training moving in the right direction.
Things like crating the dog if you can't be there to deal with any inappropriate interactions or keeping the dog and cat in separate locations in the house where there is no chance they'll run into one another. Another very important management tool you'll need is the means to physically stop the dog from chasing the cat when they are together under your supervision. Usually a leash or long line is your best option. Once you can stop your dog with just your voice, the leash will no longer be necessary, but during training it's the most important step you can take.
Safe Spots for the Cat
When I took in one of my mother's cats a few years ago, the first thing I did was put a simple eye hook on the spare bedroom door so that the door would be held open about 6 inches. This provided plenty of room for the cat to get into the room, but it wasn't enough for the dogs to follow. This room provided a safe area for the cat and the cat litter! It saved me having to teach the dogs to stay out of the cat litter as well. If your dog and cat are a similar size, you'll have to figure out a way to provide a safe haven for the cat and that typically means going up where the dog can't reach.
Depending on the setup of your home, you may want to install a cat door on a bedroom or you may prefer to ensure your cat has a high place they can get to when they're tired of the dog.
This is what you need to instil in your dog when the cat is around. Eventually, we want our dog to make the right decision absent our input, so it's important to be thorough and consistent with their training.
Work on calming exercises with your dog. Skills such as sit and down stays or go to your bed will be invaluable in teaching your dog to be calm around the cat. If these lessons are new for your dog or puppy, start without the cat in the room so your dog has a better chance of success. We always want to teach new skills absent distraction in the initial phases. If they're well along with their emotional control exercises, you can bring in the cat as another distraction to work through.
When you are teaching these lessons, it's very important to keep your rewards high value. Since chasing the cat could very likely provide one of the highest value rewards for your dog, you've got to do better! This is not the time for kibble!
Make a list of your dog's top 5 favourite rewards and use them to build value for being calm around the cat. Reinforcement history will be very important in helping your dog make good decisions moving forward. Use the food items on the list as they will promote calm behaviour. During the training phase, the leash should be on so that you can physically stop your dog should they make a mistake. The last thing you want to do is allow your dog the freedom to chase without control or consequence. It will be very hard to override the self-reward in that situation and it could be very dangerous for the cat.
Give them clear feedback on both sides of the coin. When they are calm and able to remain in the down position, be sure to reward well, increasing the duration between rewards as they show you they are learning. If they get up before you've released them, be sure to put them back immediately every time this occurs. If they are likely to get up and bolt after the cat, be sure you are HOLDING the leash to stop the dog!
Always remember that your dog chasing the cat isn't them being bad, it's them acting on instinct. Dogs are predatory creatures and need to be informed that this is not acceptable in our world. It's unfair to expect them not to want to chase the cat, so we need to take the time it takes to teach them.
Be clear, fair and consistent and your dog will learn to live harmoniously with other creatures in the household.
As always, Happy Training!