black dog and orange kitten stand next to each other

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Dear Crystal,

I have two cats.  My dog is a cat chaser and that’s been a bit of a problem.  One of my cats doesn’t seem to be too bothered but the other one is terrified of her.  Any suggestions there would be helpful.  She loves chasing.

Sincerely,

Cat Chaser

 

Dear Cat,

As you can imagine, introducing dogs to cats that are fearful is so much more challenging than introducing them to a cat that is confident. Although confident cats provide their own challenges, they may be ready to meet the dog before you are ready. My confident kitty was ready to meet my new dog the first day I brought the dog home, but I had no idea how the dog would be with the cat. Either way there needs to be a process of desensitization and counter conditioning. It just tends to go much faster when you don’t have to worry about the cat running away. Seeing a cat running triggers the dog’s instinct to chase and even dogs who live with cats at home will chase a running cat they meet outside.

Management is key in this situation. Ideally, we would manage the situation from the beginning so that the dog never has a chance to chase the cat. Allowing the dog to chase the cat reinforces the cat’s fear of the dog. Cat chasing is self-reinforcing for the dog because it is so much fun. That makes for an endless cycle of cat chasing. Since she has already started chasing her, it may take a bit longer to train new behavior choices. The dog should not be loose in the house when the cat is also loose. We don’t want her to see the kitty unless you are actively training. Pick a room in the house where the kitty can stay when the dog is out loose in the house. Put kitty’s litter box and food and water in there so she doesn’t have to leave if she doesn’t want to. She should also have a hiding place or a place up high to get away to. Ideally, the door can be shut for when you have the dog loose in the house. Rotating the cat and dog works well if the dog is sleeping in a crate at night or when you leave. You can just let the kitty run around when the dog is sleeping in the crate.

What are her triggers to chase the cat? Is it only seeing the cat run or does she start to chase the moment she sees her? What distance does she react at? We will need to start at a distance where she is not reacting to the cat. The distance where she reacts is called her threshold and we need to stay under that in order for her to learn. What that looks like for every dog is different. Some signs that the dog is over threshold is the dog is in flight or fight mode, whining, barking, unable to focus, unable to take food and/or unable to follow cues. You will get to know her signs of anxiety and know when you need to take a step back.

When you are ready to start training, have the dog on a 4-6 feet leash. Depending on what your dog’s triggers are will dictate how you start the training. It sounds like the cat running is the trigger so start with the dog looking at the cat while it is not running. How you set that up will depend on your cat. You might be able to start with your cat in a crate and have the dog at a distance where she is able to focus on you. When she looks at the cat say, “yes” and feed her a tiny piece of chicken. Slowly walk her closer as long as her behavior is not reactive and feed her chicken for looking at the cat calmly. Ask her to sit periodically to check to see if she is over her threshold. Continue to practice this daily until she can calmly walk up to the cat’s crate. If the cat is panicking in the crate, this won’t be a good starting place for you. Some cats are going to feel trapped and be so worked up it will set the dog off.  You could try putting a tall baby gate up and see if the cat will approach. If so, you can repeat that exercise with the cats behind the gate.

The next step would be having the dog on a leash attached to you and letting the kitty come out of the room. As soon as the dog looks at the cat, say “yes” and treat. What should start to happen is the dog will start to look at you when they see the cat. That is the sign that they are starting to get the association between the cat and the treats. At that point, still mark looking at the cat with “yes” but wait for her to look at you to feed the treat. If she offers a sit or a down at any point, be sure to heavily reward that behavior. Offered behaviors are so much stronger than cued behaviors because the dog thought of it themselves so they begin thinking of polite behaviors to offer which is what we want. I don’t want to micromanage my dog’s behavior; I want them to learn to offer behaviors. Keep rewarding calmly looking at the cat until the cat moves away. If the dog gets over threshold, move further away until she can calm down or call the session quits for the day and put the cat away. I try to keep these sessions to 10-15 minutes at first to keep stress levels down. Practice this daily until the dog is exhibiting calm behavior around the cat when she is in the vicinity. As the cat sees the dog is not chasing her, she will hopefully begin to relax. As that happens, the running behavior should start to lessen and hopefully that will speed up the process. Repeat this daily until the dog starts to look at you automatically when she sees the cat.

black dog and orange kitten stand next to each otherTo progress the training, start giving the dog some more freedom by having her on a long line and giving her about 8-10 feet of freedom. If at any point she looks like she is about to start chasing, reel her in and reinforce calmly looking at the cat. If she can’t calm down, cut the session short and wait until the next day. Once she is able to behave calmly with the long line, the next step would be to let her drag it around the house so you can prevent any accidental chases. If that happens you may want to take a step back and work some more. Eventually you can get to a point where she is off leash. Hopefully by that point the cat will feel safe around her and be able to calmly hang out with everyone.

It is really worth taking the time to train. Everyone will be much happier in your household. Good luck and happy training!

Until next time,

Crystal

 

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