Friday, June 3, 2011

Getting a dog and cat acclimated to one another

We've had lots of questions about how to acclimate a dog and to a cat, and we frequently refer people to a wonderful link on a great forum called Pit Bull Forum. It's just so much easier when someone else has taken the time to lay out all the information, complete with photos. We did get permission from the author (known as "Red") to post the information, and we're including a link back to the original post (which is a member-only area).

We employ a very similar method, including using firm verbal corrections if a dog shows aggression to a cat. We communicate firmly to our dogs that aggressive behavior toward the cat will not be tolerate while rewarding the appropriate behavior.  The original Pitbullforum post is linked at the end of the article. I highly recommend that you check it out, and if you still have questions about it, then email us!

Recently I have been reading of folks having difficulties with their dogs and cats. I had experiences like that with a few dogs and especially Tigger, now mine but came here as a foster dog. Tigger tried to kill my cat on the second day she was here. I do not do any interaction so soon, my husband left the laundry room open and the cat got in Tigger's face. The only thing that saved the cat was a furniture. Both me and my husband had trouble holding Tigger and we were on top of her. She was in lalaland, all she cared about was to get the cat.

So I thought of sharing my experience and what I did, for what is worth. It was about 9 months of work, it did not happen overnight and no mistakes. Maybe it can help someone and avoid a dog to end up kicked out of the house and a dead cat. This is especially for foster homes since we are responsible for the dog we take in and our own pets.

The first rule is to know the risks of bringing home an uknown dog. Your evaluation at the shelter, AC of whatever the dog comes from is only a little snapshot of the personality, habits and genetic of the dog. Once the dog is in a different environment all the "problems" show up, things might change. If the injury or even loss of a pet (it can happen) will buy the foster dog a ticket back to the pound or worse then don't foster. It is a risk, plain and simple, but good management and commitment can save troubles.

After the accident I kept Tigger totally away from the cat for about 2 months. She knew it was in the house but I did not allow her to see it. This is to try to take her mind off of it a bit and get to know the dog.

Then I started to show the cat to Tigger trough a baby gate and not knowing if she would jump it she was also on a lead. I had treats and solid hold of the lead.I was waiting for the moment she looked at me, to praise her. The first time it took 40 minutes for a quick look. Tigger knew no commands so before this I started teaching "watch me". I like positive training to teach commands but I am also not very positive when it comes to house rules. The cat is something the dogs here cannot touch and I enforce it. I don't get physical and hurt the dog but I make it clear that they cannot eat the cat. Tigger was "corrected" with voice and pulled back when she lunged at the cat.

When Tigger looked at me the first time she got her treat and the cat was put away. I started doing this every day. Tigger would see the cat for 5 minutes every day.The beginning was quite frustrating and things looked less than promising.There was lunging at open mouth, screaming and major fits. A strong and determined dog trying to do something can be an hassle. I kept insisting on it.

In the meantime I found out that she was very food motivated so I would do the "cat sessions" before a meal.

To one look a few more followed. After a few months the baby gate came down and I would have the cat loose and Tigger on lead and I would walk her around the house. By then she knew "watch me" and associated lunging at the cat with trouble while looking at me would bring treats and ball time.

I decreased the distance very slowly since she was still trying to see if there was a way she could get a hold of the cat. That meant taking a step back and work from distance.

Tigger also saw the cat when she was crated and treats were thrown to her when she laid down and ignored the cat, along with vocal praise.  When she finally stopped to lunge and pull toward the cat and I saw her focusing on me and the food I let her loose behind the baby gate and watched her, while the cat was on the other side of the gate. Tigger ignored the cat and walked away from the gate when asked.If she seemed too interested I would say "nah-ha" and she would step back and go lay down on her bed.This was around 5 or 6 months after she came here. Her body language in the cat's presence was starting to relax and she was able to play with her toys or chew on a bone behind the baby gate. With some experience we can read a dog before something happen and anticipate it and use postures to tell us what is going on.

Then Tigger was brought in the kitchen loose with the cat and me there, for 10 minutes or so each time. My husband was there also in case of problems.I had a bunch of treats and kept asking the dog to stay next to me. Each time she looked at the cat she was re directed with the voice and a treat was popped in her mouth.

Three months after that, Tigger was allowed to be loose in the living room and every room of the house with both me and the cat there.I would still offer treats and kept calling her to me but by then she wasn't showing dangerous interest in the cat.The cat was also relaxed around her.

At that point I felt that Tigger was ready to be with the cat without major problems so I increased the time they interacted.

This is how things are today, two years after the day she tried to kill my cat.Here she is asked to ignore the cat:

The same excercises were done with Jack who also try his best to get a hold of small animals. It is a year and one month that he has been here and it is about 2 months since he is allowed to be near the cat.

There are 4 dogs in this room and the cat is on the bed. Each one of them, except the little one, has prey drive and can't be trusted with any other small animal outside my house. If I leave the room the cat is not safe any more. I am very aware of it. One dog alone might not hurt the cat but with 3 of them it takes very little to get over excited, especially if the cat decides to move fast.

All this been said there is no guarantee that the dogs will never try to do something. Tigger will get any cat outside of the house, even mine. If my cat runs in the yard she will get it. Prey drive is something that cannot be eliminated on a dog. The rules only apply in my house and they are the result of months of work. I do not expect the dogs to "learn" not to be aggressive towards small animals but I do want them to follow some rules in my own house. Some dogs will never be able to be in the same room with a cat but I believe that many can get to that point, with the resident cat at least. forgetting that the way they behave inside the house is not going to affect their instincts. Outside the house it is fair game.

There is always a chance of accidents and someone can get hurt. My husband spent 4 days on IV and morphine for an infected cat bite. He had the cat in his arms and made the mistake to let him see Tigger, as he was walking outside. The cat remembered that same dog and bit my husband, trying to run for his life.

This is my experience and the way I approach foster dogs with high prey drive. It works for me, so far, granted I am willing to be patient and careful. It might not be the same with the next dog and there might be a serious accident. I am not telling anyone that it will work for you, but it is worth to give it a try at least. Mistakes can and will happen, to everyone. They teach us what we probably did not know how to manage. Sometime it is just bad luck so we have to be sure that we are ready to deal with things before we get ourselves and our own animals in trouble. And time, lots of time.

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