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by Stacy Braslau-Schneck
It's the stuff of cartoons, but there's nothing funny about a dog chasing a cat in real life. Unfortunately, most dogs find out early on that many cats will run from them -- and they're super fun to chase. Even a swat from kitty claws or a spray from that "other cat" (i.e., the neighborhood skunk) does not seem to deter many dogs. If a naturally occurring punishment doesn't reduce such a naturally rewarding behavior, your best bet is to reward preferred alternative behaviors even more.
How to Manage Dog-Cat Interactions
The first step in any training program is to prevent your dog from practicing the behavior you want to cease. Otherwise that behavior only gets reinforced, and your training program is, as the saying goes, mopping up the floor without turning off the faucet.
If you have a cat in your home, keep the cat and the dog separated when you can't be there to supervise them, or at least keep the dog on a leash. Since cats can choose to jump dog gates and come into the designated dog area, use solid doors to keep them separated. (And make sure everyone in your house knows the rules!).
If the cats your dog encounters are outside on the street, be sure to keep him on a leash. This should be your rule if your dog isn't under voice control, even if you're in one of the rare locations that allow off-leash walking.
If your dog has a history of not just chasing, but actually injuring cats, it's of utmost importance to create several layers of management if you live with a cat. And let your neighbors know they should not allow their cats to enter your dog's yard. No cat deserves that fate; in some areas a dog that kills a cat can be labeled a "dangerous dog" with restrictions, including having to be muzzled in public.
Train the "Leave It" Command
Every dog should have a pretty solid "leave it" command. You can start by teaching your dog to "leave" a boring treat held in your closed hand. As soon as the dog backs off from your hand, mark that moment and reward your dog with an even better treat from your other hand. Expand this training to "leave it" with an item in your open palm, with a similar item on a low surface (like a coffee table) and finally, with that item on the ground.
Next, try a similar exercise with a toy.
I like to teach "leave it" with a soft toy attached to a long fishing pole or stick. You can start by moving the toy slightly to trigger the chase instinct and teach your dog self-control. In the initial stages of training, it's best to have your dog on a leash so if you've over-estimated your dog's impulse control, you can at least prevent him from rewarding himself.
If you live with a cat, the final step to test your dog's true control over his chasing instinct is to place your cat in a stationary position (on top of a high cat tree, or in a carrier) and do the same exercise. Be sure to give the cat some kitty treats too. Remember that when you train "leave it," you are trying to capture and reward the moment when your dog looks or turns away from the item he's cued to "leave." Be sure to reward this strongly so that your dog is highly motivated to comply.
Change Your Dog's Reaction to Cats
Your long-term game plan to stop your dog from chasing cats should include changing his fundamental reaction to seeing a cat -- particularly if that cat is part of your family. This can be very challenging, especially if your dog's "prey drive" is strong, or if he has a long history of gleefully chasing cats. It also requires some good timing skills on the part of the trainer. It's essential that your dog is familiar with some sort of reward-marker, such as a clicker.
You can then capture that very brief moment when your dog looks at the cat, before he engages in the rush or chase (or sometimes, after he has tried but has been prevented by a leash). Be ready to click or mark that brief moment immediately. It's like taking a picture of the "Kodak moment" before the chase starts. Click and follow up with some kind of excellent reward (usually food treats work best for this situation, since you want the dog to stay calm and not consider the cat a toy). This last technique is usually called "look at that" (from Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed series of books); it rewards your dog for looking at a cat calmly and associates the cat with "tasty treats" instead of "fun chase time."
Training a new response to a powerfully instinctive behavior always takes time, but it can bring you peace in your animal kingdom!
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