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Fighting Like Cats and Dogs

Dear WOOF:

My dog is cat aggressive and/or has a high prey drive... what can I do to make this stop? We've tried lots of things and he is in obedience class and understands the command 'leave it' but he seems to be obsessed with cats... and I have a few in the house... he is constantly either on a lead in the house or they are in one of the bedrooms.

Help me!


You don't mention this dogs age. Also, is he a rescued dog? What makes you think that he is cat aggressive? Has he ever actually hurt your cat(s)? When you say "high prey drive" what specifically do you mean by that? Does he (or has he) chased down and injured/killed animals outside? If you've answered "yes" to these questions, please get back to me with specifics. If he has already injured one of
them - or any for that matter, or if he actually does have a high prey drive, it may not be possible for your dog to live in a house with cats, but assessing your dogs behavior to determine this, or to formulate an approach in how to proceed requires more than speculation.

So, I will address your question as best I can, but I please also see the archived article on dogs and cats on the Woofology website under the archives section for more on this topic.

Often times when a dog has it's first experiences with a cat, people mistake the interest the dog has in it (chasing, pouncing upon, etc.) for aggression, which is usually (but not always) the case.

What kind of training are you doing with him in class? If you are using choke, pinch, or shock collars, I suggest that you stop using those methods now, and switch to a gentle leader and the use of positive reinforcement techniques to address the behavior. My guess is that you're trying to "correct" him when he starts to chase or otherwise act in an undesirable way. Any form of aversive around the cats can make the behavior much worse, and end up actually provoking an aggressive response from him that he otherwise would not have shown. Please see the articles "Beware Positive Reinforcement" and "On The Hunt For a Good Trainer" on the Woofology site for more on this.

One thing is for sure. If you want your animals to live peacefully together, you need to increase the amount of appropriate exposure (during controlled training sessions) that they have to one another.
Otherwise, the novelty level stays very intense so that when your dog sees the cat again, he is inspired to react in an inappropriate way because he is so aroused and excited.

The point here is to prevent what you don't want, while you reinforce what you do want. That way, the behavior you are positively reinforcing will grow, and the behavior you don't want will decrease.
Your first step is to decide what it is that you want him to do, and prevent the behaviors you don't want him to continue doing from happening. For example, if you want calm relaxed behavior, then you
must set the situation up so that the dog can actually do what you want - by manipulating distance from the cat AND exposing him appropriately, and often. This may take 2 weeks, a month, or more -
there's no way to predict, but doing things correctly and as slowly as necessary makes all the difference. Prevention of unwanted behavior is the single most important factor when working to modify existing behavior(s). Use baby gates to help control things when you are not actively training to prevent his rehearsal of inappropriate behavior.

The goal here is to create a successful situation by giving your dog the opportunity to gain reinforcement (food treats) for remaining calm and relaxed in a seated or down position, (presumably preferred
behavior). You want your dog to eventually view the cats as a cue to be calm and relaxed, so as soon as the cat is in the room, the training (and opportunity for yummies) starts - when the cat is taken
out of the room, the training (and the opportunity for more yummies) stops.

Working with one cat at a time, start with your dog on leash and have a friend hold the cat at a distance that does not send your dog into a frenzy.

If a 10 foot distance is where you have to start, once he's good at 10 feet, you'll start your next session at 10 feet and then drop down to 9 feet during that session. Next session you'd start at 9 feet and drop to 8 1/2 feet during that session, etc., until he is relaxed and calm at a close distance. Don't go too far too fast - remember the key here is to help him learn a new behavior. If he is still acting crazy, there's not enough distance and the training is advancing too quickly. Go back a few feet and start again.

These training sessions also give your cat the opportunity to have safe and relaxed interaction with the dog which is also very important.

By the way, you mentioned using leave it. If he is not responding to your cue for leave it with the cats, then the behavior has not been "proofed" well enough for him to respond in situations that are
that intense. Dogs don't generalize very well. Proofing simply means setting the dog up for increasingly intense distractions, and reinforcing them for responding - this way the dog knows how to respond even in intense situations.

Please keep us posted on your progress, or if you live in Metro Detroit and are interested in a private training session.

Thanks for writing and good luck!

Lisa Patrona,  Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT

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