How to Keep Your Dog From Chasing Cats
5 tips to keep trespassing cats safe even if (or when) your dog chases them. Plus – anti-cat landscaping!
If you read The New York Times Magazine, you might have seen the January 8, 2012, installment of the Ethicist’s column, in which an anonymous writer asked whether she should tell her ill neighbor that her dogs had killed the ill neighbor’s cat (and two others) when the cats strayed into the writer’s yard. The Ethicist said yes, and I agree. She also pointed out that the writer could have managed the situation to prevent the cats’ deaths. Being the Ethicist, and not The Dog Trainer, she didn’t go into detail about how. Being The Dog Trainer, I will.
This week: 5 ways to keep wandering cats safe from your dog.
Tip #1: Keep the Cats Out Entirely
Outdoor cats tend to have short lives, thanks to cars, coyotes, and, as in our example, dogs. So animal welfare groups generally agree that cats should remain indoors, or have access to secure outdoor enclosures. Environmental groups point out that domestic cats prey on birds and other wildlife, which suffer enough from habitat loss as it is. Maybe, with the help of some stats and a guide to environmental enrichment for cats, you can persuade your neighbors with roaming kitties to keep them safe inside.
Or perhaps they’d be willing to install catproof fencing. This comes in two varieties: a mesh overhang, or pipe-like rollers, also on an overhang. Both types of catproof fencing take advantage of cats’ dislike of climbing upside down. Unfortunately, this means that special fencing is probably not an option you can take on your own, because the overhang is over the cats’ yard, not yours.
Let’s face it, though: Solutions that rely on getting other people to change their behavior have low odds of success. A neighbor’s cat shouldn’t suffer for her owner’s carelessness, so most likely it will be on you to protect her from your dog.
Tip #2: Solidly Fence Your Yard
A solid 6-foot privacy fence will at least discourage cats from coming in, and a well-fenced yard provides maximum safety for your dog. If the cost is prohibitive, or if your local homeowners’ association bans solid fencing, then you need to make sure that your dogs do not get out of your home unsupervised.
By the way – shock-collar-based underground fencing is emphatically not an alternative. There are reports of behavioral side effects including fear and aggression, for one thing. Worse yet from the cat-protecting point of view, dogs hot on the chase will often charge right through the shock. And the icing on that ugly cake is that when the chase is done and your dog has cooled off, he may not be willing to brave the shock to come back home again.
Tip #3: Check for Cats Before Letting Your Dogs Out
The easiest and maybe most reliable fix. Your dog can’t chase and catch cats who aren’t there. In an earlier article, I explained how to teach dogs to wait for permission to go out an open door. Get that down, or make it a habit to always bring your dog outdoors on leash. Make sure the yard is cat-free before you turn Dogalini loose.
Tip #4: Teach Your Dog to Interact Peacefully with Cats
In my experience, it’s easier to teach your dog a controlled response to unfamiliar cats and outdoor cats if she has friendly experience of cats as social partners at home. Be aware that learning about cats goes in both directions – just as a dog who’s used to living with cats may have an easier time learning not to hunt them, so a dog who’s used to hunting cats may have a harder time seeing her fellow pets as anything other than prey. So this tactic is one to use before your dog has any cat-killing under her belt.
Suppose, though, that your Zippy does live peaceably with one or more cats, but gets agitated over trespassers outside. Try this: Bring Zippy outdoors on leash when you know an unfamiliar cat is present. Have some deluxe treats with you – this is a time for roast chicken and sardines. Keep Zippy at a distance where he’s aware of the cat but not excited, and reward him for paying attention to you, walking nicely on leash, holding a sit, and in general doing anything at all around the cat that doesn’t include trying to chase her. End the training session while Zip is well able to focus on you. If Kittychai has left, you can let Zip trot around off leash.
Proceed slowly and cautiously. You may want to have a professional trainer coach you in person. And with most dogs, I wouldn’t rely on this training to keep trespassing cats safe. If you have more than one dog, I really wouldn’t rely on it, because excited dogs amp each other up and become much harder to control around potential prey. Still, every layer of protection you can build in is a layer of protection between wandering cats and a painful death. And the training practice is always worthwhile: You wind up with a dog who can attend to your cues in the face of intense distractions.
Tip #5: Teach Your Dog an “Emergency Recall”
An emergency recall is the come-when-called cue you use when your dog hasn’t responded to your usual cue or in such life-and-death situations as when she’s headed for a busy highway or a wandering cat.
Pick a different word or phrase from your usual cue; it should be something that your dog doesn’t often hear, but that you’ll be able to get out of your mouth in a real emergency. If you can whistle loudly (even when you’re scared), whistling may be a good choice.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll teach your dog a strong association between your emergency cue and the most delicious, wonderful treat your dog could possibly imagine. Many times a day, at random moments, give the emergency cue and immediately deliver that treat. After a couple of weeks of practice, use the cue in different situations. Always give your dog the special, superdeluxe treat. During your training, you should never give the cue when you don’t have the superdeluxe treat handy.
Anti-Cat Landscaping, Ultrasonic Devices, and Sprayers
Some plants, such as pennyroyal, may repel cats. Mothballs do the same. The trouble with these two examples, as well as other suggestions I found online, is that they’re not just repellent but toxic, and not only to cats but to dogs as well. They may harm some wildlife, too. Check with the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center before you landscape.
I’m also not a fan of ultrasonic animal repellents. If wandering cats hate the sound, your dog will hate it too. The same goes for other nearby dogs, and probably for cats who are in their own homes, minding their business. As I’ve said many times, there is nothing like randomly delivered distress to drive animals crazy.
Motion-detecting water sprayers have some similar problems. You’ll wind up spraying your dog (punishing her for nothing in particular). Outdoor cats risk hypothermia if they get wet in chilly weather, and there’s not much point in saving a cat from dog attack if she then freezes to death. Instead of spending time and money to buy, install, and maintain these things, work with your dog on her behavior and cues.