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Cats with Northern Dogs

By: Gary Wynn Kelly

Most northern breeds of dogs are natural predators, but many can and do learn to live with cats successfully. While many dogs have learned to live with cats while the dog was a puppy, some have also learned to live with cats when they, the dogs, were already grown.

If you have cats, and want to have a northern breed dog, there are many factors to consider. Perhaps the most important is your cat. Has your cat had experience with other dogs? What kind of experience? Is your cat “dog smart”?

A dog smart cat is one of the most important ingredients in teaching any dog to live successfully with a cat. A cat that sits still, and sets limits on what it will tolerate from an uncertain dog can be precisely the best teacher for an inexperienced dog in regard to successful cat-dog relations.

A cat that runs from dogs is much less likely to be successful in adjusting to a dog. It still might be done, but will take more work, as the cat must learn not to run when confronted with, or in the presence of, a dog. To learn this, the cat must experience a measure of security first, and learn that it can control the behavior of the dog.

If your cat is dog smart, and has had years of successful experience with a previous dog,or with other dogs, then bringing in a new dog has the possibility of success.

First, find out if the dog you wish to adopt has any cat experience. If possible, find out if the foster home has noted any response of the dog to cats. This might happen naturally on walks with the dog. When the dog is walked, does it react to cats? If so, how does it react?

If the foster dog ignores cats, that is best, as the dog will quickly learn to live with cats in most instances. If the dog is extremely curious, or cautious, then careful handling may result in a successful relationship with a cat. If the dog is aggressive, or out of control around cats, then it may be an uphill mission to ever contemplate bringing the dog to successful relations with cats. A careful evaluation of any dog is in order if you own a cat, and wish to adopt a dog.

If the best case exists, you have a dog smart cat, and wish to adopt a cat tolerant dog, then the introductions are usually easy. Let your cat go to a favorite hiding place when bringing the dog into the house. Walk the dog ON LEASH, through the house, giving it plenty of opportunity to smell the cat’s odor in each room. Have the dog spend time in a room of your choice, with you.

Remove the dog from that area of the house, and let the cat come into that room. Give the cat time to check out the odor of the dog. If the cat and dog both seem indifferent or simply curious about one another, try a careful introduction. This can be done in several ways: if your dog is small, and you are absolutely certain of your ability to control the dog completely, and only if this is so, then allow your cat to be in a room where it can retreat to a safe place NEARBY–without having to run. Bring the dog into the room slowly and under your control, while the dog is ON LEASH. Stand a few feet from the cat with the dog beside you on a short leash. Give them time to watch each other, and the dog time to sniff the odor of the cat.

If the dog seems to be reacting well, and if the cat is still calm, permit a closer approach. IF the dog remains calm, or mildly curious, and the cat is only watchful, then let them continue examining one another. The cat will usually start establishing boundaries by vocalizing, assuming an aggressive posture, or even hissing. If the dog backs down, or turns away, then successful relations are underway in most cases.

If the new dog reacts aggressively, or inappropriately, then correct the dog, making it clear that this cat is yours, and very special to you. I suggest even petting the cat while admonishing the dog to treat the cat as a friend. I have introduced several dogs–usually naive ones–to cats this way, and had them become cat tolerant, or even cat friendly.

I define cat tolerance as a condition where the dog mostly ignores the cat. The dog may even pretend the cat is invisible, or not present when it is in the same room, or has walked by the dog. I usually train my guide dogs to do at least this much.

The cat friendly dog learns to have a cat as a companion, and may even curl up with such a cat, or treat it as a friend. The cats often warm to this relationship. My father had an older dog who had cataracts. As she lost vision, the two cats would take her out at night to do her duties. One cat would walk ahead of the dog on each side as though guiding her by their presence. They would remain nearby while she completed her evening rituals, then escort her back to the door. In turn, when the dog barked at something during the daytime, the cats would take cover immediately, and clearly depended on the dog to protect their territory.

My sister defined a third term–cat reverent. She felt that this was the only appropriate relationship of a dog to a cat.

In the cases of dogs who are not known to be cat tolerant or cat friendly, I recommend that people take a more conservative approach to introducing the dog and cat to one another. In the most desirable of circumstances, it is best to have the dog and cat live separately in the house; each to his or her own area, for days or weeks, until they have each had ample opportunity to absorb the fact that another animal does live in the house, and will always be around. As each of them gets used to the other’s scent, each learns to ignore it. When the dog can come into a room recently vacated by the cat, and not sniff every area where the cat has been, then there is a possibility of introducing them slowly.

One method of introduction in such a case is to crate or kennel the dog. I crate train all my dogs, and a dog safely confined to a crate is one that cannot hurt a cat. If the dog you are introducing to a cat has learned to accept a crate, and shows some sign of being able to be around a cat without barking or growling aggressively, then an introduction can be done by crating the dog in the favorite room of the cat while the cat is absent.

After the dog is safely crated, and quiet, permit the cat to return to that favorite room. If the cat enters the room, give it time to explore and check out the confined dog. It is often helpful to have had the crate in that room for a day first, so the cat can be used to the crate, and the smell of the dog in the crate in advance.

If the dog remains calm, and the cat can explore the crate, perhaps even sitting on top of it, without eliciting bad reactions from the dog, then the two of them are starting to develop tolerance. Repeat this exercise regularly for a week or so.

Even if the dog does react by making sounds, or becoming excited, let the exercise continue for a few minutes each day. Start by just permitting a couple of minutes, then extend it to 5 minutes, then 10, and finally after a few days to 30 minutes.

If the dog reacts with more violence, try using a solution of white vinegar and water–a 50% solution–in a spray bottle, or squirt gun, to correct the dog. When the dog starts to behave aggressively, squirt it in the face with the solution. It will not cause harm to the dog, but it is a nasty smell to the dog. It will help to convince the dog that you mean for it to behave in another way. The dog will try to find that other way, which is most simply done by remaining quiet, and gaining your approval. Praise the dog when it is remaining quiet as the cat explores the room.

When your dog can remain under control in the crate for 30 minutes at a time with a cat in the room, your dog is developing tolerance to cats.

I sometimes suggest doing the exercise in reverse when the cat is crate tolerant. I suggest crating the cat, and let the dog smell the crate, examine it, and be in the room with it, in the presence of the owner, but not able to harm the crate or cat in any way. This will only work if the cat consents to be crated. In cases of young dogs who are full of energy, this approach works more successfully than with a dog crated.

Some cats are stressed by being crated, and it may be a good idea to spend a month or more successfully teaching your cat to accept a crate before adopting a dog. This approach is also recommended for cats that have the bad habit of running from, or in the presence, of a dog.

Dogs are natural predators, and the running of a small animal flips the equivalent of a switch in the brain of the dog. The result is a biochemical sequence of events that can be very unfortunate for the cat. The dog that sees a cat run can, unless well trained to inhibit the reaction, have a biologically programmed reaction to chase and attack the cat. In most instances, this is unfortunate for the cat, but can also be dangerous to the dog. Once a dog has a pattern of chasing running cats, it is almost impossible to successfully train the dog to live with cats safely, unless one is an expert in the training of dogs, and feels it is very important to teach the dog a different behavior. All dogs can eventually learn, but some require more resources and effort than is justified. The vinegar-water squirt bottle can help discourage such behavior from ever beginning.

When your cat can be in the same room as the crated dog with both resting comfortably, or the dog resting in the room with the crated and safe cat, then it is possible to expose them more and more to one another. I suggest having the dog crated at night, perhaps in your bedroom, and the cat in the same room. This can be done for several nights, and usually will work out well for them to get used to one another. When this seems to be happening, then try introducing your dog to the cat as I described previously–with the dog on a SHORT LEASH–and the cat in a room where it is near safety, should the cat feel safety is required. Sometimes, this can be a high counter–perhaps a kitchen counter–with the top of the refrigerator nearby. Not that I believe that cats should ever be on a kitchen counter, but this is a helpful illustration.

The one rule about cat and dog relations is that in most instances, the cat controls the success of the effort. If your cat decides to accept a dog, then it is definitely possible to teach the dog to tolerate the cat, unless that dog has been permitted to be a cat killer previously. If your cat decides not to accept the dog, then it is probably not worth the effort to adopt the dog.

If you own a dog already, and wish to adopt a cat, it is best to determine that the dog is cat tolerant or cat friendly first. If it is not, then please, consider your pet’s feelings before requiring it to accept another relationship that can be stressful.

Sometimes this is essential, as in the case of a relative coming to live in your house. The relative may be bringing a cat along. This is most successful when the cat, at least, is used to dogs. If not, the chances are that the cat will leave, so it may be best to place the cat prior to having the relative moving into your home, unless your dog is extremely cat tolerant already, and the cat has no reason to fear dogs.

Most dogs who have no experience of cats, and cats that have no experience of dogs, can be taught to live with one another. This may not be true with all dogs, but is certainly true of most northern breeds, who have strong pack alliances, and will extend them to include cats if you make it important for them to do so.

Copyright ©2001, 2007, by Gary Wynn Kelly Please respect the copyright, and make all requests for redistribution to ADRTC.ORG.