Training Dogs To Live With Cats

It’s very important to socialise your dog with cats even if you don’t have one.  That way you can go to other places with cats – friends houses, pubs/bars, hotels, vets (you will need to do that occasionally of only for vaccinations!) – and know that your dog will be well behaved.

I have ex-racing greyhounds as part of my ‘pack’.  In all, I’ve owned 6 greyhounds of my own in the last 10 years and fostered several through rescue.  I’ve had other dogs as well, most through rescue routes.  And I’ve still got my fat cat Hoolie who has lived with dogs all her life.

ALL of these dogs have been trained to live with cats reasonably easily.  In some cases it was a matter of minutes, in others a few weeks.

If you get a rescue dog, always see if the rescue centre can give you any indication of results of their own cat testing.  Some places do cat testing and others do not.  However remember that some dogs are so traumatised by their background that you might not get a fair reading of the situation until they have been in a home environment and settled down.

If you get a puppy from a breeder who has cats themselves, this is a good start but you should continue that cat training as the puppy matures.

If you don’t have a cat of your own, find a friend with a cat who can help out.  Or maybe a local rescue centre that has ‘centre cats’ (eg they lie on the reception desk) might help you.  Dog behaviourists or the breeder might also be willing to assist.

I thought I would describe what I do with my dogs, including puppies.  This works with a cat which is reasonably well adjusted and not overly timid or nervous.  This is just my system and is has worked well for me in the past.

  • I introduce them first inside the house.  Getting the dog used to the cat indoors means that you can then do the same training outdoors.  This is so the dog learns that cats are not to be chased indoors or out.
  • I always introduce the dog to the cat.  It’s difficult to get someone to bring a cat close to a dog if the cat doesn’t want to go.  Have you tried giving a cat a tablet, or trying to put it into a cat box to take it to the vets?  It’s like trying to untangle a very strong, slippery octopus.
  • I have the dog and cat in the same room with the doors closed.  There is always somewhere high for the cat to leap to, out of reach of dog nose, such as the back of a high sofa, window sill, bookshelf or similar.
  • I try as far as possible to have someone else with me, armed with a squeezy water bottle or good water pistol – you’ll see why in a minute (it’s something to do with not quite having enough hands!)
  • The cat is allowed to be free in the room.  The dog is kept leaded (leashed) and muzzled in the case of ex-racing greyhounds or any rescue dog where history is uncertain.  In the case of new puppies, leaded (leashed) should be sufficient.
  • Keep the dog sitting or standing next to you. Hold the lead firmly. Watch the body language – if the hackles (fur on the back of the neck) rise and the dog goes stiff, it’s squaring up for a lunge.
  • If the dog lunges at the cat, immediately correct with a sharp pull back on the lead accompanied by a firm loud ‘NO’ or ‘LEAVE’ command.  Don’t shout or scream but raise your voice enough to make it understood this is not acceptable.  (The cat might leap up high to get out of the way.) 
  • If you can, at the same time, the dog lunges, get the other person to squirt the dog with water between the eyes. If you don’t have a friend, squirt the dog yourself as best you can as soon as the lunge starts.  And it’s only water so the floor or carpet will dry out pretty quickly.  Greyhounds and sighthounds generally don’t tend to like water so this is a great non-physical method of making it unpleasant for them to lunge at the cat.  Many other dogs are the same.  It doesn’t tend to work so well with water dogs or working dogs such as labradors or spaniels!
  • Repeat the process until you see the dog is calming down and learning that lunging at the cat = being reprimanded and squirted. 
  • When the dog stops lunging reward with praise ‘good boy/girl’, a pat or stroke and a treat. 
  • Repeat the process until the dog and cat actually meet up and can sniff each other.  At this point, ensure that the dog is still held very firmly on the lead (leash).  If your dog is muzzled, do not take off the muzzle until you are sure they will not lunge and bite.  This might take a while.  Some dogs are very intelligent and will bide their time.  Reward all good behaviour positively with praise and treats.
  • After the dog and cat have sniffed each other, a good sign is when the cat actually rubs against the dog.  This is saying ‘you are my friend’.  Cats have scent glands on their heads so when they rub their heads against you it’s marking you as ‘territory’ and ‘friend’. 
  • If the dog responds well to that by calm acceptance and sniffing the cat’s bottom, rather than lunging and barking, reward with treats.
  • At this point, I would try letting the dog have the full length of the lead (leash) but keep it muzzled if a muzzle has been used all along, walking it around the room with the cat still in residence.
  • Once all lunging behaviour, including any suggestion of lunging has ceased, I would then allow the dog off the leash.  This is when having two people working together on the dog is helpful – if you do suddenly get a lunge/chase, there is more than one set of hands to grab the dog.
  • Always throughout the process reinforce good behaviour with praise/treats so the dog learns ‘nice to the cat = treats’ and ‘lunging at the cat = unpleasant things’.
  • Once the dog and cat have accepted each other, allow them to reside in each other’s space under close supervision.  NEVER leave a dog and cat alone together in a room or a house until you are completely satisfied that they get along completely.

Sometimes the entire process can take only a few minutes.  But sometimes it might take much longer.  Be prepared for this and break the process down into bite sized chunks.  If you sense that either animal is getting tired/stressed, STOP immediately and give them both a rest.  Half an hour at a time is more than enough.  Spread those training chunks over as many days as is necessary.

Make sure the dog and cat can have separate rooms or spaces in the house in between sessions.  Some people allow the cat to be upstairs and the dog downstairs while the training is taking effect.  They should not come into contact without supervision until you are happy with the cat and the dog behaving themselves correctly.

It helps if you use a crate as the dog (and cat) beds because then they can both be confined when you are not around.  Alternatively, you could crate them alternately – the dog in their crate and the cat out, and the cat in their crate and the dog out.

Always make sure you fully supervise all interactions until you are sure that there is no problem.

Once this is done, move the process outside into your garden or yard and start all over again.

This is the process which has always worked well for me in the past.  Different people may have different strategies.  But remember it can take time.

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