Making peace between dogs and cats

Is coexistence possible?


Q: I want to adopt a retired racing Greyhound but I've heard they chase cats. I don't want anything to happen to my cat! Can I teach them to get along together?

A: Yes, most dogs can be taught to tolerate cats if their owners are willing to be patient and consistent. Some dogs take longer to train than others and the difference is usually due to the dog's level of "prey drive".

Nature designed canines to be predators — to chase and catch smaller animals for food. Although dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still act upon the instincts nature gave them. Through generations of selective breeding, people have modified these instincts. By decreasing the effects of some and enhancing the effects of others, we've been able to develop a wide variety of different breeds of dogs, each meant to serve a different purpose or perform a certain function.

A dog's instinct to chase and catch something is called his “prey drive.” Throw a stuffed toy for a puppy and watch his prey drive in action as he chases it, catches it, then shakes it to “kill” it. Breeds and individual dogs vary in the intensity of their prey drives. Breeds created specifically for killing other animals — most terriers, for example, were intended to kill rats — have very high prey drives.

In other breeds, the prey drive has been altered to suit an entirely different purpose. In the Border Collie, a herding breed, the instinct to chase and catch animals has been modified to chase and gather them together. Prey drive can also be modified by training. Drug sniffing and arson detection dogs have high prey drives that have been redirected toward objects - these dogs are taught that illegal drugs and fire accelerants are “prey.” Although we think of the Greyhound as a racing dog, it was originally bred for hunting, using its great speed to chase down hares and other fast creatures. Consequently, it has a high prey drive and is inclined to chase cats.

There are several effective ways to train a dog with a high prey drive to live peacefully with cats or other small pets. I prefer to teach these dogs that cats are off limits altogether and are not to be disturbed. Using a friend or family member to help you, set up several short daily training sessions. With the dog wearing a training collar and leash, put him on a sit/stay beside you. Have your friend hold the cat on the other side of the room. Your dog will probably be very curious and even excited at seeing the cat, but insist that he remain in the sit/stay position. Praise your dog for sitting calmly.

Have your friend bring the cat a few steps closer. If your dog continues to stay quietly at your side, wonderful! Praise him for it. If he tries to lunge at the cat, though, give him a stern, fierce-sounding “NO! LEAVE IT!” along with a short, sharp jerk on the lead and put him back in the sit-stay position. As soon as he is sitting calmly again, praise him sincerely. Continue bringing the cat closer, a few feet at a time, repeating the corrections as needed and making sure to praise the dog when he sits quietly and ignores the cat. Have patience — depending on the intensity of your dog, you might only be able to gain a few feet each session.

When your dog is able to sit calmly even when the cat is right next to him, you're ready to proceed to the next step. Release the dog from his sit/stay and let him walk around the room with the cat present. Leave his lead on so you can easily catch him and give the necessary correction if he gives any sign of wanting to chase the cat. Your supervision at this point is critical - to be effective, you must be able to correct the dog each and every time he even thinks about going after the cat. If he's allowed to chase her, even once, he'll want to try it again and you'll have to start your training over from the beginning.

Some dogs learn quickly, others may take weeks to become trustworthy around cats. Until you're sure the dog will remember his training, don't leave them together unsupervised!

A Siberian Husky owner combined a dog crate with the “LEAVE IT!” command to help introduce her cats and dogs. Sometimes the dog was crated with the cat free in the room, at other times, the cat was crated while the dog was free. The dog was allowed to investigate the cat but not to harass or bark at it.

Another owner uses a technique that's often practiced to help dogs adjust to a new baby in the household. By giving the dog extra attention and even special treats when the cat (or baby) is in the room, the dog soon learns that having the cat around means very good things are going to happen to him!


Q: I've been following your advice and it was working pretty well until the other day. Something startled the cat and she took off running. So did the dog — hot on her tail! He wouldn't stop when I told him to. What did I do wrong with my training?

A: Nothing. You just need to do a little more work.

A dog's prey drive — his instinct to chase and catch — is triggered by movement. Things that quickly move past or away from him like balls, children playing, joggers, bicyclists, speeding cars and running cats, get an immediate reaction from your dog because nature programmed him to chase moving creatures. As long as your cat was sitting still or just going about her business, your dog learned to ignore her. But in motion, she became something completely different and exciting. His ancient instinct to chase called to him and he obeyed without thinking.

Just as you taught your dog to sit quietly when the cat is in the room, you can also teach him to ignore the cat when she's running or playing. Once again, get a friend to help you. With the dog on lead and in a sit/stay position, have your friend play with the cat and encourage her to run about. Praise your dog for sitting calmly, correct him if he tries to chase. As your dog becomes more reliable, he may be allowed to investigate the cat's play or even join in the game as long as he remembers his manners and how to respond to your command to “LEAVE IT!” when necessary.

For more on this subject see "Fighting furry furies?"
Vicki DeGruy

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