How to teach your dog to live safely with cats and other small furries.
Mark writes, “I just adopted a rabbit from the humane society. My dog acts like she wants to eat the rabbit. I have seen my dog kill an opossum and a bird. Can you teach a dog to not go after small animals?” This week, dogs and their small furry housemates -- whether they can live safely together, and how.
How to Introduce Your Dog to a New Pet
Plenty of dogs get along just fine with companion animals of other species. If you’re lucky enough to be introducing a blasé cat or other furry to a dog who responds with social behaviors instead of a reflexive insta-chase, you may need to manage the situation only briefly or not at all. But that’s probably the exception. The more predatory your dog, and the more prey-like the other animal, the more careful your introductions should be.
A pitfall to avoid: repeated encounters in which the dog lunges and the small furry takes off running, or vice versa. The more any animal rehearses a particular behavior, the more entrenched that behavior gets. At a minimum, your dog and your small furry should find each other neutral -- boring, even. Relaxed friendliness is better yet.
Step 1: Let the Animals Get Bored With Each Other’s Sounds and Smell
To prevent running and chasing, start off by keeping the animals physically and visually separated. You can close a door between a cat and a dog, or keep a rabbit hutch or gerbil cage covered with a sheet when the dog is in the same room. If your small pet is a prey animal, a dog’s intense interest may scare them badly even if there’s a barrier between them. If your dog acts excited around the hutch or tank, you can have her on leash and set up an additional barrier to keep her at a distance. Reward calm, polite behavior with praise and treats. Take the opportunity to work on your dog’s down-stay and other mannerly behaviors – she’ll begin to get the habit of being around your small furry without focusing on him.
Look for your small furry and your dog to respond to each other’s sounds and smells with their species’ equivalent of a shrug. “Dog? Cat? Rabbit? Meh! Old news.” Expect this to take as long as a couple of days.
Step 2: Let the Animals Get Used to the Sight of Each Other
Now you can move on to the visuals. For a few minutes at a time, open that closed door and replace it with a baby gate, or lift a corner of the sheet that covers the hutch. Set up for success: pick a time when your dog is good and tired. And it wouldn’t hurt for her to be engrossed in a food-dispensing toy or long-lasting chewy before the big reveal. The ideal response on both sides is indifference or friendly but mild interest.
Step 3: Help the Animals Get Comfortable Being Together
Gradually, over hours or days, increase the amount of time the animals spend together and decrease the distance between them. If the animals show calm, friendly interest in each other, great -- keep the interactions brief at first. When everybody’s relaxed around everybody else, you can let go of your dog’s leash and have her drag it instead. The last step is an off-leash dog.
Decide How Quickly to Proceed
How far and fast should you proceed? Remember, animals are individuals, and you know your pets best. Terriers and their mixes tend to respond to small furries in a more intensely predatory way than, say, spaniel types. Take into account relative sizes -- it’s one thing if your Chihuahua forgets for a moment that your cat isn’t a snack, another if your 60-pound Catahoula mix makes the same mistake with your gerbil. I haven’t found any studies on this point, but common sense suggests that extra care’s in order for pocket pets and rodents who live with dogs.
Closely watch both species’ body language. A dog who’s low to the ground and creeping toward Thumper probably has food on his mind, not friendship. Or if your furry shows signs of anxiety, it’s break time. A rabbit may stomp when frightened, for example. Lead your dog away.
Stay Away from Punishments
Much as I dislike shouting, collar jerks, penny cans, and other aversives, this is a context in which I dislike them even more – you guessed it! Even when they stop a behavior in the moment, pain, fear, and startle work against your goal of relaxed friendliness. If your dog makes a mistake, end your training session. Next time make the session shorter, or keep your dog at a greater distance from the small furry, whatever it takes to help everybody succeed.
A Few Cautions
Remember, emergencies do happen. Something alarms your rabbit or your rat, she takes off, your pooch goes zipping after. Let’s just say that reliably coming when called is a valuable skill for every dog.
Though most people who live with cats and dogs have little to worry about, think twice about leaving your dog unsupervised with your cat if he’s much larger than Kitty, or if it was hard to get him past a predatory response. As for rabbits and pocket pets, separate them from your dogs when you can’t be there to supervise.
Mark, the listener whose question prompted this episode, mentions that his dog has killed an opossum and a bird and has already reacted strongly to his new bunny. Fortunately, even dogs who chase and kill small prey outdoors can learn a nonpredatory response to animal housemates. Mark should start from scratch and proceed slowly and carefully. No unsupervised contact, ever, please, and don’t expect the home relationship to transfer to the other furries in the world.
This discussion has to cover as many eventualities as possible, so it’s a bit like a prescription drug insert, listing every scary side effect anybody ever had. Wasn’t there some guy in Manitoba who took two aspirin and grew an extra head? Sad things do occasionally happen when dogs live with small furries. But you can up the odds of everybody living contentedly ever after with just a little patience and care.
You might take heart from a 2007 study done at Tel Aviv University. The researchers, Neta-li Feuerstein and Joseph Terkel, found that not only did cats and dogs get along, they often even learned each other’s body language and became friends. I’m happy to speculate that the same can apply to dogs and hamsters and gerbils, and Thumper, too.
Feuerstein, N., and J. Terkel. 2007. Interrelationships of dogs (Canis familiaris) and cats (Felis catus L.) living under the same roof. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 113: 150-65.
An article describing the study appears at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080908135916.htm.