Oh how fortunate we were decades ago when introducing new dogs to existing cats and new cats to existing dogs in the home. No need to tell you all the things we did wrong. Let me just say I’m very thankful Lady Luck intervened so that in the end everyone was happy and able to co-exist peacefully. Oh heavens, it could have gone so wrong!
Now that we know what we know about dog and cat behavior and the individual needs of each species, we take a much different and much slower approach to help set both the dog and the cat up for success when introductions are made. Introductions normally go faster with a dog that has prior experience with a cat and a cat who has prior experience with a dog; however, don’t take this former experience for granted.
The Biggest Mistake
The theme for the introduction is “slow and steady.” The biggest mistake people make is just putting the dogs and cats together expecting them to work it out. I’m sure you understand how “first impressions” can make or break a relationship with a new human friend and it’s true for dogs and cats too.
Pet Gates Are Necessary
The judicious use of pet gates helps keep the dog and cat separated so that each has a chance to visually see and smell the other from a safe distance. The preferred pet gate is one that also has a cat door within the larger gate that can be opened or closed (start with it closed). Don’t force the interaction. Please let each go at their own pace and when you do see them looking at one another, lay on the praise. Even better, toss a yummy treat to the dog and a yummy treat to the cat which is helping each animal associate something positive (yummy food) with the presence of the other. Even though the pet gate is between the two animals, be sure you place each treat so that the dog and cat move in different directions to eat the treat (away from one another vs. closer to one another). We’ve found that little bits of canned albacore tuna are a nice treat that both dogs and cats love.
After a number of days or weeks as you observe nice loose body language of both the cat and the dog, it’s time to think about opening the cat door within the pet gate to allow the cat to come and go as he or she feels comfortable. This is where having taught your dog some nice focus and attention exercises come in handy.
Have a Leash Available
The first few times I open the cat door, I like to have the dog on leash beside me with treats in my pocket. The leash prevents the dog from rushing and scaring the cat when the cat decides to explore the room and the treats allow you to reinforce the dog for nice calm behavior. You may have nice voice response from your dog with a well cued “Leave It” but I want to be certain that I can keep each animal as comfortable as possible at this stage, so a leash is recommended. Remember the theme of “slow and steady.” Don’t rush the process.
A Quick Escape Route
As the dog and cat become more comfortable with one another, there’s still the chance that the dog may scare the cat and the cat will need a quick escape. While its possible for the cat to jump over the pet gate or zip through the cat door in the gate, most cats prefer to seek higher ground, so your cat will appreciate having several cat trees or cat condos available for every day comfort and a quick escape.
Happily Ever After
Focus and attention training for your dog, as well as your cat, goes a long way in helping redirect either one from the other both during the introduction period and afterwards. It’s all about setting each species up for success so that they will enjoy a happy and long life together.
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe. www.coldnosecollege.com