A few weeks ago, I did something bonkers. I decided to get a cat. That might not seem so strange until you realise that I live with a dog who kills things. Breezy is a 9 yr. old husky x border collie. He has killed birds, rodents and rabbits. He would have LOVED to add ‘cat’ to that list.
Historically, Breezy has been totally unable to function cognitively with a cat in the vicinity: lights on, no-one home. He couldn’t eat, take treats or respond to his name. When we have stayed with friends who have cats it has taken at least 24 hrs before he could be distracted from trying to access them. Even when he could be distracted he went right back to hunting as soon as he could. With a couple of near misses out and about, cats were BIG on his radar!
So why the dickens did I want a cat? Well, I wanted to train another species. So, in a fit of impulsiveness, Speck, the 12-week-old kitten, arrived. I’m pleased and relieved to be able to say it has been a total success.
Here’s how I did it…
The day we collected Speck we had already set up the puppy pen in the kitchen. This is a wire/wood pen about 2m x 1.5m and has a lid. I set it up for long term cat living with climbing frame, bed, litter tray etc. I also covered the sides with towels to block visual access. Hubby took Breezy for a walk while I installed said kitten.
We also have a barrier between the living area and the kitchen. This meant I could have Breezy restricted so he couldn’t access the puppy pen at all. He could, however, smell and hear CAT. As predicted, his little canine mind was blown. A CAT in his house?? What the…???
It took about 24 hours before Breezy could take food or respond to his name in the living area with the cat within hearing/smelling range.
Ok, finally the brain started to come on line properly and Breezy could eat and respond to simple cues. Now we could really do some work.
Firstly, I took down some of the towels so Breezy could see Speck from behind his room barrier. Oops. Back to not being able to eat treats. More time needed.
By day 03 we were at the stage where treats could be eaten and cues responded to with Speck in view. Time to move on. I put Breezy on a lead and I removed the barrier between the rooms. The lead prevented lunging at the crate – last thing I needed was a petrified cat!
Speck was already used to dogs; he was born into a busy home with a terrier as part of the family so even at such an early age he was pretty robust. It was partly why we chose him. In fact, he was so bomb proof that we wondered if he was deaf for nearly a week.
Breezy was intrigued. I let him sniff around the crate. Speck could hide away in a box and behind towels if he felt threatened – not that he ever did, he was equally intrigued. During this I kept up a steady flow of treats for looking calmly at Speck. I also kept the sessions really short so I could control arousal for both parties. So far, so good.
By now all the towels had been removed and Breezy had been choosing to sniff and come away from the crate by himself. He has been marked and reinforced for each good choice. Time to move on again.
For the next step I had Breezy wearing a double ended lead on a harness so I had good control of him. He was also wearing a muzzle for obvious reasons. I muzzle train all my dogs as a matter of course – you never know when it’ll be useful. We let Speck out of the puppy pen. Breezy got a steady, almost constant stream of marks and treats for calmly looking at Speck or showing any social behaviour at all. Head turn away? YES! Polite sniff? YES! He also got paid very well for tolerance of proximity.
We’d stayed with that for a few days until Breezy was showing sociable interest, rather than predatory interest. There were subtle signs of the shift. He stopped staring and looking slightly stressed. He started giving his ‘greeting’ wag and had his ‘hello, who are you?’ ears on – the same body language he gives to new dogs when he first meets them. His body softened and he was easily able to respond to cues. So, ready for the next stage.
The muzzle came off. For this bit I had my husband, Blair, keep the kitten further away (treat placement works for cats too) while I asked Breezy to respond to very well-known cues. He was still on a harness and double lead so I had good control; no chasing allowed! Gradually we moved the cat closer until he was up close and personal with Breezy. Again, the marks and treats flowed thick ‘n’ fast – ANY relaxed or sociable behaviour was reinforced. The whole set up was micro-managed and sessions were short to keep arousal in check.
All looking very good so far so next step: proofing. Proofing? Yep, cats run. They do weird stuff. They are idiots when they are adolescents, just like dogs. So, I needed to know that Breezy wouldn’t flip into prey mode as soon as Speck behaved like a normal cat. So, with Breezy still on the harness/lead I had Blair play with the kitten. Speck, like all cats, likes to chase moving things so that’s what we did. We started at a distance and gradually moved the Silly Speck closer and closer until he was dashing all over the place, including under and over Breezy!
Once again, the payoff for NOT chasing was extremely high. To help him out I had him working for me so he had something to occupy his mind while Speck was being a fool. Gradually I let Breezy make more and more of his own decisions; watch the mad cat or offer to work with me. No contest. Work wins over most things with this boy – he has a huge reinforcement history for working and he LOVES doing it. He was easily able to glance at Speck’s antics and quickly reorient to me to continue to work. In fact, the antics became the cue to work: Speck does something daft, look at Mum, get a cue to earn a reinforcer – lovely!
Time to ditch the lead. Finally, the big day. No muzzle and no lead. I did leave the harness on just in case a quick intervention was required. Speck strolled out his pen, went over to Breezy and said ‘Hi’ in the way of domestic cats the world over – he rubbed around Breezy’s legs and then took off like a rocket! Breezy just stood, looking a bit surprised, and then looked at me for his treats. Alrighty!!!
Over the next couple of days, we set up closely supervised sessions with both animals loose in the kitchen/living area. Breezy got reinforced heavily for tolerance – kittens can be so suicidal at times!
It didn’t take too long before Speck and Breezy were actually playing together. Yep, a weird game of cat ‘n’ mouse with Speck as the mouse; hiding and playing peek-a-boo around the couch. Both seemed to enjoy it and at no time did I see even the first hint of ‘evil intent’ from Breezy. He looked very much like he did when he was playing with a young puppy, lots of self-handicapping and play bowing. Perfect!
Moving it outside was the final step. It’s not unusual for a dog to be fine with a cat indoors and then chase it relentlessly outside. Change the context and all of a sudden, the cat is prey once more.
Once again, we did structured set ups. Breezy was back on his lead and working while Blair played with the Speck. After a few sessions it was obvious that Breezy wasn’t going to chase him so off with the lead.
Job done! 2 weeks from start to finish.
If you’d have asked me how long it would take I would have guessed at months. It is worth noting however that Breezy has a very high level of training – all reinforcement based, and thoroughly understands impulse control and how to make excellent choices in the face of big distractions.
At NO time was he ever given the opportunity to even think about chasing Speck. If he wasn’t in a training session he didn’t have access – either he was in another part of the house or Speck was in his puppy pen. Total management and 100% controlled exposure in gradually more challenging set ups.
Breezy was also consistently reinforced for good choices even if he wasn’t being ‘actively’ trained. For example, one-night in week two Speck was doing the ‘nutty feline’ thing in the pen, pinging around and jumping about as if the floor was electrified! Breezy watched for a second or two and then came over to me. Bingo!! Yep, decisions like that will earn you good stuff Breezy!
Below is a short compilation video of the stages we went through on our journey. Please excuse the attire – I had to do the sessions when I had Blair about and that was usually early in the morning and I’m not dressed for public appearances!
– Sarah & The Gang
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