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Living with Dogs and Cats

How to create a peaceable kingdom in your household
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The Savvy Trainer

I love dogs. I also love cats, and currently have four, but one is a foster kitten that is rapidly making herself at home. My Border Collie mix was rescued as a puppy and has been raised with cats, but things have not always been easy. When she was a puppy, chasing the cats was a wonderful source of entertainment. One of the cats refused to run and would stand his ground, but the others played right into the game and chaos ensued.

Dogs have a hardwired instinct to chase prey, and many are specifically bred for this ability. Terriers were originally bred to rid barns, homes, and fields of unwanted rodents. On the other hand, most cats will run from danger, creating a perfect set-up to be chased by a high-prey-drive dog. Of course, there are dogs that don’t chase and cats that don’t run, but what should you do if you have runners and chasers?

The first step is to carefully orchestrate introductions. If you walk in the house with a newly adopted cat in your arms, the dog is naturally going to want to see what you have.  The jumping dog will scare the cat, which will run and then be chased. This is a really bad start to what could be a wonderful relationship. Whether you are bringing home a new dog or cat, all animals need to be restrained so you can manage the introductions. You will need a human friend to help. Cats should be in crates and dogs on leashes. If you have multiple cats or dogs, introduce them one at a time. Begin with the cat on one side of the room and the dog on the other. Feed both animals high-value treats. Gradually move them closer together while still feeding. You are creating a conditioned emotional response with this process. If done correctly, both animals will associate the sight of the other with yummy treats. Until you are absolutely certain that a new animal has successfully integrated into the household, keep them separated when you are not home to supervise. 

If you have a dog that becomes excited in the presence of a cat, you need to use a technique called counter-conditioning and desensitization to change the dog’s emotional response to the cat. Put the dog on a leash and arm yourself with good treats. Whenever the cat is present, generously feed the dog, then stop as soon as the cat is gone. The dog will start to associate the cat with 'yummy treats from the human' instead of 'chase/kill.'

Introducing young animals into a household is usually easier, but what should you do if your new puppy is endlessly chasing the cats like mine did? Train!!! A few essential cues like 'leave-it,' 'come,' 'go to bed,' 'down,' and 'stay' can give you the tools necessary to control the interactions. 

If you have worked hard to change the behaviors without success, it may be best to re-home one of the animals. This is a difficult but selfless decision. If you have a dog with a history of hurting or killing cats, it is highly unlikely you will be able to change the behavior. We owe it to our pets to give them a living environment free of stress and danger, and the re-homed pet will have a chance at a long and happy life.

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March 14, 2019