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How to Cure a Cat-Chasing Dog

A new addition to the family

When I brought Mimi the Burmese home at the age of 12 weeks, I was quite worried about my older dog. I felt sure that my young poodle, Misha, and the new kitten would rapidly become friends and playmates (which they did). However Twitchett, a 9-year-old border terrier, represented a serious threat. In fact, one senior animal behaviorist had e-mailed me advising that I rethink my plan of getting a kitten.


Mimi and Twitchett

Natural conflict?

Twitchett, like all terriers, was bred to hunt small prey, and she was a fanatic. Where I used to live, in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, Twitchett had pursued, caught, killed, and dragged into the house a wide variety of critters, from mice and rats to a half-grown opossum. As far as I know, she never caught a cat, but she had been allowed, and indeed encouraged, to drive feral cats off the property in order to protect the birds at my bird feeders. In her view, chasing cats, and killing them if possible, would be both a responsibility and a pleasure.

Twitchett knew, from both instinct and practice, how to grab and shake a small animal all in one motion to break its spine. At least at first, one unguarded exposure of terrier to cat and this cherished (and expensive) kitten might be dead. Here's how I used the clicker to solve the problem.

At least at first, one unguarded exposure of terrier to cat and this cherished (and expensive) kitten might be dead.

Preliminary strategy

I established the kitten in my home office with the door closed. Until further notice I would play with and clicker train the kitten only in the office or the kitchen. I kept Twitchett in another part of the house, also behind closed doors.

On the first evening I shut Twitchett up in a sturdy airline shipping crate in the kitchen and put Misha, the gentlemanly poodle, on a leash. The cat was released to investigate them. Misha responded to the kitten's approaches with dog-to-dog social behavior: sniffing, licking, tail wagging, and giving the calming signals of a lowered or averted head if the cat glared at him. Perfect. Twitchett, meanwhile, howled, yapped, and scratched at the crate door continuously, especially when the kitten (of course) jumped up onto the crate and peered insolently through the air holes. I let this go on for 15 minutes, then put the cat back in the office with her dinner and released the dogs and fed them.

Round two

On the second evening of close encounters in the kitchen, Misha was allowed to play with the cat, with his leash trailing and me hovering behind to step on it if a chase got too rough. Twitchett, watching from the crate, howled continuously and tried to get out. "That's a cat. Let me out, I can get rid of it for you!"

I clicked and treated Twitchett for any brief moments of silence. I also fed treats to the cat with each click, to maintain her clicker conditioning. After five or ten minutes of this, I put the cat back in the office and released the dogs into the living room, using a baby gate in the hall between the rooms to prevent Twitchett from snuffing, crying, and scratching at the office door all night, as she was undoubtedly planning to do.

Playmates, treats, and the evening news

For the next few nights, while the evening news was running on the TV, I tethered both dogs to heavy furniture in the living room, supplied myself with clickers and treats, and let the kitten in (she was dying of curiosity and anxious to join us). The kitten could go where she wanted, and soon she and Misha began learning how to play together. Meanwhile I clicked Twitchett for looking away from the cat, however briefly, then for relaxing into a sit (uncued by me), then for relaxing further and lying down, and then for lying down and watching me.

Gradually Twitchett began regarding these evening social sessions not as a thwarted opportunity to chase cats, but as an opportunity to be clicked and treated.

I started using a verbal marker for Twitchett, the word "Good," which she knew meant "click" but the others didn't. Gradually Twitchett began regarding these evening social sessions not as a thwarted opportunity to chase cats, but as an opportunity to be clicked and treated. Her focus shifted from panting, quivering attention on the kitten, to yearning, wide-eyed attention on me. "Will I get clicked? How can I persuade her of my need for more food?"

Daredevil cat

By the time we'd done this nightly for a week or so, the kitten began to take what I considered terrible chances. Once when Twitchett was standing still, hoping for a click, the kitten dashed right through her legs and vanished under the couch, moving so fast that Twitchett could only stare. Then she took to batting Twitchett's whiskers and tail (click, treat) and then to rolling on her back and letting Twitchett lick and nibble her belly fur. I was nervous, but it was the cat's initiative, so I let it happen. As a precaution, I kept the tethered Twitchett right next to me and also held her firmly by the collar, and I put the kitten away at once if the terrier began whining or showing increased excitement. Mimi ended these sessions sopping wet, but she didn't seem to mind. Twitchett ended them with a click and a big treat.

Mimi had been with us about three weeks when she completed Twitchett's cure. Twitchett, tethered as usual, was lying next to me and quietly enjoying a new bone when Mimi jumped off the couch and landed on her back. Twitchett didn't even turn her head—she just picked up her bone and moved away.

I knew that the worst was over. Twitchett had just treated the kitten as a sort of puppy, as a juvenile social acquaintance rather than prey. "Don't bother me now, kid. I'm busy." From then on I began to allow Twitchett off the leash for brief periods of social play with the cat. As Mimi ferociously attacked Twitchett's front leg, or left ear, or wagging tail, the dog just looked at me: "Do I get clicked for this?" Yes indeed.

Mimi then began to initiate chases with Twitchett, bouncing sideways and then bolting away right under her nose. A risky sport, I thought, but the cat had a plan. Just when Twitchett was about to catch her, she disappeared. Then, while the dog stood still, looking around in confusion ("Where'd she go? She was right here, I almost had her!"), from some nearby shelf or table the cat would drop onto Twitchett's back.

Twitchett just hated this. The look of confusion and embarrassment on her face was priceless. Finally she would respond to a chase invitation, run three or four steps, and then stop, sigh ("I know where this is going"), and grumpily come back to the couch and lie down. Dogs play checkers, but cats play chess.

Twitchett now treats Mimi like a beloved child.

One big family

Until Mimi was about six months old I kept her shut safely away from Twitchett whenever I wasn't home, in case the two dogs chased the cat together and things got out of hand, but finally even that precaution became unnecessary. Twitchett now treats Mimi like a beloved child. She washes Mimi's face every morning, takes naps curled up with her on the couch, and lets her steal her toys. All three animals greet guests at the door. We are a family.

Does this all seem like a lot of trouble? It really wasn't. It took me 10 or 20 minutes a night, while I was watching the news anyway. As long as we were making progress, I knew we would reach the goal of complete peace, and we did. Was it worth it? You bet! Otherwise I couldn't have a cat—and everyone needs a cat.

Excerpted from Getting Started Clicker Training for Cats, by Karen Pryor.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.