Pawsibilities NY

Month: July 2014

Dogs and Cats: Overcoming the Myth

For me, there has only been a very short portion of my life when I did not have both cats and dogs living together in my home.  I can also say, I have never seen a dog attack a cat, in my own home.  I don’t think I am a magician or a “whisperer” I just think that the myth is quite a bit off…

First of all some dog breeds are more drive-y than others; they are bred and raised to chase and catch small, fast moving animals, and cats fit that description.  It isn’t often that a dog is specifically going for the other animal because it is a cat, but rather because it is a small, fast moving animal.  These breeds will of course make the relationship a bit more challenging, but it is still not impossible if you are committed to working on it!

When first introducing a dog and cat it can be a good idea to have the cat in a plastic crate where he is safe and can’t scratch through the bars.  We are trying to keep the cat and the dog safe, remember that cats can harm dogs too, it doesn’t only go one way!  Next I would say that it is unfair to test a declawed cat with a dog.  The cat has no way to defend itself and it also will have a harder time getting away, as jumping and grabbing onto things are much harder for declawed cats.  Of course I think that declawing is completely inhumane and unacceptable, if you happen to have a rescue who was declawed before you got him, it might be best to only have him around dogs who you know to be good with cats.

I also want to be sure there are plenty of places the cat can jump up to, to get away from the dog.  Depending on the size of the dog this will be more or less difficult; if you have small dog, having some high shelves, or a cat tree will work, but if you have a bigger, more agile dog, you might need to be sure there is higher ground that only the cat can get to.  you can do this by buying some shelves and lining them with carpet so the cat can jump up to them.

Another good tool for the introduction is a Thundershirt.  I find the Thundershirt to be very effective for dogs being introduced to new animals.  I also like Rescue Remedy and Pet Natural’s of Vermont Calming biscuits for both dogs and cats.  Don’t try to hold your cat because when he decides he wants to get away, he needs to be able to do so and he could scratch or harm you in the process.

Once you have gotten over the initial introduction, you will still want to make sure you supervise the dog and cat while they are together, and separate them when you leave.  I like to keep a pot of water handy because this will safely break up a fight if one should occur between the dog and cat, and while it might make your floor wet, it will do no other damage.  Another option is to have a Pet Corrector handy.  These are powerful air cans that make a loud and startling noise and can break up a fight.  Please do not point the Pet Corrector at your pets-ever.

If your dog is having trouble with your cat then I like to use a clicker to help the situation.  If your dog barks at or lunges at your cat then I would start by warming up the clicker (see: What Is Clicker Training?).

Next I would keep the dog and cat at a safe distance, even with a baby gate between them if you need it for safety.  You want your dog to be counter conditioned and desesnsitzed to your cat.  Desensitization happens by exposing the dog to the cat in very small, non threatening ways, so distance and gates, or even a leash can help with this.  Counter conditioning is the good following the bad; so for your dog the cat is the bad, choose her favorite treat to be the good, and anytime your dog looks at the cat and doesn’t lunge, bark or do something naughty, click and treat!  The tasty food treats should come quickly in the beginning.  Little by little you can allow the dog to look at the cat for longer periods before earning the click and treat.  If you happen to push it a little too far and your dog does react, then take a break and try again later.  We want the dog to learn that the presence of the cat earns her treats, but only if she behaves.

You could also teach your dog cues such as “leave it” and “stay” and then add the cat to these cues as a distraction.  We of course want to teach new behaviors with no distractions, and then slowly add them in, so work slowly up to being able to do these things with distractions, and eventually your cat.

Dogs often make their own decisions if not helped out with the process, and sometimes they make the wrong choices!  By teaching them what you actually want: a stay or a leave it, they can actually understand the behavior you are looking for, making it much more likely they will listen.  After all your dog can’t be expected to “stay” away from the cat, or “leave it” to the cat if she has never been taught these things!

I have never had problems with cats and dogs living in harmony together, and I truly don’t believe it is because I am special, I believe it because I take some time to understand both dogs and cats, and their needs, and I do my best to provide that.  Dogs need to be shown what we are looking for, otherwise they tend to bark, jump, lunge and play; they are dogs, it’s what they do and one of the reasons we love them!  But cats don’t love this sort of behavior, especially from an animal that tends to be much bigger than them.  Cats need to be provided with a safe and easy escape, because if they have the escape they will likely use it, but if they have to fight the dog, they will do so, and trust me, sometimes the dog is the one who needs a trip to the vet after these interactions!  If you simply teach your dog how to behave around your cats, and provide your cats with safety; you will likely see your dogs and cats can live harmoniously together.

“But It’s Working…”

“But It’s Working…”

I have found that a lot of dog owners try a lot of different things to get desired behaviors. Let’s face it, we all try to figure things out for ourselves, so we might turn to a friend who’s dog behaves in a manner more like what we had hoped for when we got a dog, or you might turn to the fun exciting world of the internet search. Either way you you will likely find answers that either don’t apply to your dog, or sound good to you, but in reality aren’t actually changing the behavior.

All dogs are different; and even if your good friend’s dog did once bark when guests came in, and he was able to correct this behavior; it does not mean the method used will work for your dog, or even if it does work, it could have negative side effects. You should be very weary of quick fixes and short cuts, as they might end up causing more undesirable behaviors in place of the old one.

It is important to consider that your dog is highly intelligent and if she is behaving in a way that seems unruly, dangerous or even just annoying to you, it is important to think about what result you would like to have if you confront the problem. Are you only looking to stop an unwanted behavior, or do you actually want to confront the reason the problem exists and change your dog’s feelings about it, so that her emotions behind the behavior can also change.

“Suppressed behavior is not changed behavior…” Victoria Stilwell

If your dog barks while you are not home, your goal might only be to make your dog be quiet while you are not home, you might not even consider the deeper anxiety that is causing this barking, and you might go to the pet store and buy a citronella collar, or other anti-bark device. In some cases you might even get the result you were looking for; you put the collar on your dog and go off to work, and you don’t hear any barking, and you don’t come home to any complaints. Unfortunately you have not dealt with the core of the behavior; the anxiety, and you have now added a tool that sprays or punishes your dog while you aren’t home, you are only adding to this anxiety. If you are lucky it might end here, and you might think that anti bark device or collar really works, and now you might become that neighbor or person who freely recommends these tools. But for a lot of people this is not where this will end. Because you are not addressing the issue, the anxiety could lead to far worse things. The two specific examples I see most often will be dogs who become so anxious from this that they simply cannot hold their bowels or bladder, and as soon as you leave they go to the bathroom all over the house, crate and/or safe area. The other example I see a lot will be a dog who looks for items to chew in place of the barking and to help ease the anxiety. These dogs not only cause great damage to household items, moldings and walls, but they are also at great risk to swallow foreign objects and have an obstruction that can end up needing surgery.

If your dog pulls on leash and you go into a pet store and pick up a big strong prong collar and think to yourself; “this will work!” Then you begin to walk your dog on the collar and every time she pulls you jerk that prong collar and like magic she seems to fall right back into place by your side… for a little while, maybe 3 steps before she is out in front again, and you jerk her back and think “this is working!” I encourage you to realize that if that collar were actually training your dog to walk by your side, you should only need to use it for a few days, but if it translates to a lifetime of wearing the prong collar, it is not changing your dog’s behavior and it is basically just harassment.

While training dogs people use one or more of the four quadrants of operant conditioning: Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. The first thing to learn is that the positive and negative in these quadrants don’t apply to good and bad, but instead to adding and taking away. Reinforcement is something likely to increase behavior, while the definition of punishment is to lessen behavior. If you are using the prong collar to stop your dog from pulling, you are trying to use the prong as punishment to lessen the behavior of pulling. If everyday you wake up and have to put that collar on that dog and jerk that leash back 5, 10, 15 times while on your walk, every walk; you are not lessening the behavior of pulling. Your punishment is not working, so you should seriously consider a different method. If you want to use punishment based methods with your dog, then at least understand them; understand that if it is working the punisher should be able to be faded and the behavior should cease; otherwise it is not working; plain and simple.

Another thing to consider about punishment is the negative fall out that can come with it. Even if you are still convinced your prong collar jerks are working, you have to be very careful about what those “corrections” might accompany, and how that might change the way your dog feels about certain things. If your dog gets jerked on the prong while a child approaches him on the street, it might only take two or three times before your dog thinks the child approaching is what causes the jerk on the prong collar, and thus she might no longer like children, she might even be afraid of children now if she is afraid of the pain of the prong being accompanied with their presence, and this could result in an aggressive outburst one day. Remember punishment lessens behavior, so if your dog happily runs up to a child and punished by your prong, she will stop happily approaching children.

If your dog is showing undesirable behaviors it is important first go see your vet, and explain the problems you have been seeing. Dogs can have pain, tooth aches, or even hypothyroidism which all can be contributing to their behavior. It isn’t fair to implement any training plan unless the dog is healthy!

It is also important to look at the big picture, if your dog is acting up, don’t just stop the behavior, but get to the core of the reason for the behavior, because if you do you can change the emotions behind the behavior so it doesn’t return or manifest is more difficult ways. If you find yourself using short cuts, or methods you have learned about from a friend of friend, and you think to yourself; “but it’s working…” I encourage you to strongly consider if it is actually working for your dog!

Know Your Dog’s Body Language, Know Your Dog!

It is so important to understand your dog’s body language; I can’t tell you how many people I have heard say that they have had dogs their entire life, and in the same breath say something about how the dog is wagging his tail so he must be happy.  How can you have an animal for so much of your life, and not even understand the basics of dog body language?  If you know and truly understand your dog’s body language, you will be able to help ensure the safety and well being of your dog, as well as the people around him, in all different situations.

Let’s start with the previous example; tail wagging.  When your dog wags his tail it is because of adrenaline.  Just like humans while adrenaline is coursing through your dog he can be feeling a lot of different emotions.  If we have a surge in our adrenaline it oculd be because we just won the big race, and we are feeling happy and accomplished, but we can also have this same surge if we are driving and the car in front of us slams on the breaks and we need to pull to the side to avoid an accident.  Even though it is the same adrenaline, the emotions we are feeling are very different, and this is the same for your dog while he wags his tail.  As Grisha Stewart points out on the very first page of her book The Official Ahimsa Training Manual:

“A wagging tail means that a dog is excited, that there is adrenaline coursing through the dog’s veins.  A wagging tail goes with both happy and unhappy emotions.”

Usually a spiraling tail is a happy dog, try to take note of your dog’s tail the next time you come from being gone all day; if it looks like a helicopter propeller that’s your dog’s happy tail!  A tail that is high and stiff and wagging fast, sometimes called flagging, this usually means your dog is aroused, or anxious.  Low and slow wagging can mean a weary dog, and of course a tucked non wagging tail is a scared dog.

Next I find that three of the most obvious behaviors your dog will do are often explained away by owners as being caused by something else.  Yawning, lip licking and shaking off are all three examples of appeasement behaviors, that can sometimes mean other things.  If your dog just woke up and she yawns, she probably isn’t stressed, but if a noisy scooter roars by and your dog yawns, this is likely a stress sign.  Same goes for licking her lips; if your dog is licking her lips while you prepare her dinner, probably just fine, but if she licks her lips when your little cousins give her hugs, then she is probably stressed about this.  Shaking off as if your dog were covered in water; completely normal when she is all wet, but not if is after a friend pets your dog.  You will often see your dog do the stress shake off after being examined by the vet.  I usually call it “getting the yuckies off.”  And it does exactly that; allows your dog to “shake off” some of the stress they are feeling.

If a situation is very different for your dog, a new vet, dog park or home, then it is a good idea to recognize your dog’s posture.  Is she standing confidently with her tail up?  Or she holding her body lower to the ground?  She might even be all out cowering, hold her head and over height very close to the ground.  If she is doing this, she is likely afraid and it best to try to remove her from this situation.

If your dog’s posture is fine, but you are still concerned she could be nervous, then next you should look at your dog’s face, eyes and brow.  Is she panting even though it is not hot?  Are her eye darting or avoiding you?  Is her brow furrowed and wrinkled?  All these signs may also mean your dog is feeling anxious.

Finally you should check for a piloerection which is when the hair along your dog’s spine, the hackles, stands up on end.  There are usually two levels of this, if the hair is only raised between the shoulder blades this usually means the dog is excited, and if the hair is raised all the way along the spine to the tail, the dog is likely nervous and becoming too aroused, if you see this in a dog park it is a good time to step in, or redirect your dog.

Dr. Sophia Yin has some great free downloads on her website including a poster displaying most body language signs in your dog.  I find it to be very useful tool.  You can download it here:

If you want to learn more about your dog’s body language, another great rsource is Sarah Kalnajs’ “The Language of Dogs” DVD.

It is important to know the signs that a situation might be too much for your dog, after feeling stress and anxiety is not fun for anyone, especially your dog.  Take note of how she reacts to different people and things, and something seems to cause stress for your dog, either do your best to avoid those situations or consult a local certified dog trainer to help your dog over come these anxieties.  Dogs communicate mostly through body language, so learn to be fluent in their language so that you can understand and provide your dog with what she needs.  Your dog will thank you for it with big circular tail wags!