Ask the Trainer? - Help! Our new dog is chasing the cat!

Ask the Trainer......

I wondering whether you have any info or ideas about retraining a dog that chases cats. A friend has just got a 16month old guide dog that has been removed from the program and it chases her cat!

The safety of the cat should be top priority so the first step should be to separate the dog and cat. This prevents the dog from practicing chasing the cat (which dogs find lots of fun and therefore very reinforcing) and ensures the cat is not at risk of injury or worse. They could then work on slow intros using baby gates/crates/leashes and work on reinforcing the dog for staying calm/disengaging from the cat. I really like the 'Look At That' exercise for this. I would also work on teaching the dog a strong 'Leave It' cue and a reliable recall cue.

Start with very short introductions at the distance required for the dog to stay calm. Your training plan may look something like this (please note this is generic and should be customised dependent on your situation/environment and how both the dog and cat are coping/progressing):

  • Dog on leash, behind baby gate, cat as far away as possible, short session <5 minutes.

  • Gradually move cat and dog closer together (very small increments), sessions still <5 minutes.

  • Once cat and dog can be on opposite sides of baby gate increase session times gradually.

  • Dog behind baby gate without leash, cat on other side of baby gate, short sessions <5-10 minutes

  • Gradually increase session times.

  • Dog in crate, cat loose in the same room.

  • Cat in crate, dog loose in the same room.

  • Dog and cat loose in the same room (actively supervised).

At each step in the plan you should be looking for how well your dog can disengage from the cat and you should not see any excessive staring, barking or lunging before moving on to the next step. Additionally you want to also ensure the cat is comfortable, do not move forward if the cat is stressed by the procedure.

I would also recommend working on building the cats confidence around the dog to help prevent the cat from running every time it spots the dog. This running away is extremely exciting for dogs and is likely to trigger chasing - the less the cat runs the less likely the dog is to chase. So when working with the dog, you should try to have someone simultaneously working with the cat reinforcing sitting/lying down or slow, relaxed movements. Additional measure you can take to ensure everyone stays safe and happy once dog and cat are interacting more casually is to provide the cat with areas that they can easily access that are up high where the dog can't reach and to baby gate off a certain area of the house that the cat can retreat to when it wants or needs. I like to suggest having the laundry closed off so just the cat can access it. This can be where they have their litter trays, food bowls and beds so they can toilet, eat and rest in peace.

If during any stages of training the dog is fixated or hyper focused on the cat, cannot look away, whines/barks constantly, demonstrates any level of aggression directed at the cat or you feel uncomfortable with the interactions then it is vitally important you seek the assistance of a qualified behaviour consultant to assess the situation and assist with the training protocol.

Dogs and cats can certainly live in harmony but it is always important to keep in mind when mixing dogs with small animals there should always be some level of management present to ensure the safety of the small animals. Unfortunately it isn't uncommon in my line of work to receive phone calls from devastated owners whose dog has suddenly attacked or killed their cat (chickens, rabbits etc) after living peacefully with them, sometimes for years. It is critical to remember that dogs are predators and small animals are prey and that there are no guarantees when working with animals. For this reason I always recommend never leaving dogs and small animals (yes, even cats) alone unsupervised. If you have to go out dogs should be kept in a separate area to other animals - always.

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