I realized recently as I was working with a dog, that I use a similar method when teaching dogs to be okay with cats in their space as I do for cutting their nails: Association.
For example, Kele my wonderful girl, tolerates cats. She hasn’t had a choice since they were in the house before she was, but she has her limits. Ever since it’s been her and me in bed together, she’s taken it upon herself to rid the bed of any cats. This is quite upsetting in my household. My cats, already taking second fiddle to the dogs in so many ways, use bedtime as their time to snuggle with mom. So Kele has gone to night guard duty….right next to my ear.
I can’t blame her. Kele spent her first year on the streets of the Navajo Nation where she begged for food from any stranger who stopped at Burger King. It was a tough life for a pup and she learned some great street smarts, which did not include sharing with cats. Since then she’s always tolerated the cats. She never chases them, but she will let them know when they’ve gotten to close with a throaty growl and sometimes she’ll go so far as standing and letting out a bark.
Since I value my sleep, I decided it was time to put an end to this. In this picture, I was actually laying in front of Kele (so between her and where the cats currently are). I had been sitting on the bed with her (cleaning her muddy feet *^#!) when the cats jumped up for some love. So I used the opportunity to change Kele’s association with the cats on the bed:
As she stiffened up, I petted and reassured her. When she didn’t growl or react in any way I told her that was awesome and totally treatable. The word treat has a lot of value in my house. Often I’ll use it when I don’t have any with me to let the dogs know they did something great – then I’ll be sure to give them a treat as soon as I get my hands on one.
After a second I reassured her I’d be back and went and got the treats. Since everyone was still on the bed when I got back (hooray!) I gave her a nice piece of cheese. As we sat there, I petted both her and the cats, every once in a while feeding her small pieces of cheese. Anytime she got nervous or focused too long or hard on the cats, she’d turn her head back toward the treat bag, then I’d give her a pet and remind her that it was okay. When she relaxed or looked my way, I’d acknowledge and treat her.
Kele knows the word treats, so using it shows her that I want to acknowledge how good she’s doing. By giving her treats with the cats in close proximity, I can slowly change her feelings and attitude about them. She also uses the treat bag as a coping mechanism of sorts. By leaving it laying in front of her so she can turn towards it anytime – I find this is a great way to remind her there’s a better choice. When I cut nails I do something similar.
If a dog is nervous about their nails I will cut one nail, give a treat and be done, then come back at another time to do another, and so on. Once the dog is comfy having me cut an entire paw then I will leave the treat bag in front of them so they can refocus on it (rather than me and the task at hand). It should be noted that I think most dogs get their nails cut too short so we’re often overcoming pain that they experienced in the past during the same process. In order to overcome the fear I use junk food. It’s the one time my dogs get junky treats – after grooming time – I feel it’s a small price to pay for a wonderful, stress free experience.
Remember, when we’re working on every day issues – it’s important to work in every day settings. Practice with your pups when you get out of the shower, after dinner or just when you have a second of down time….your pup and your relationship will improve because of it.