Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scaredy Cat, Part 3: From Fear to Friend

My fiance's dog Lola is scared of cats. I have a cat. This presented a problem when we decided to move in together, especially when you consider that we live in a relatively small space with few places for either of them to escape. The relationship needed to be fixed.

We've already talked about the need for management. Management is an ongoing thing that really can't stop. This is especially true when you have a large, powerful, or tenacious dog. Dogs can and do kill cats. As you read today's post about changing emotions, keep in mind that management needs to continue happening alongside this training.

The way we change emotions in non-human animals is through classical conditioning. I've written about classical conditioning before (see here), and you can also click on the "classical conditioning" tab at the bottom of this post and in the side bar to the right. The TL;DR version: we are going to teach our dogs that cats are awesome creatures who bring delicious foodstuffs like chicken and bacon and potato chips. We do this by letting the dog see/smell/hear the cat, and then giving her something super delicious.

Before I go any further, this post is about dogs who are AFRAID of cats. Some dogs don't get along with cats due to predatory behavior. If this is the case with your dog, strict management and a consultation with a professional trainer is in order. And then more strict management, likely for as long as they are both alive.

Doing behavior work with cats can be difficult because cats aren't crazy about being restrained. Most cats are not leash trained or crate trained, cutting out two major ways we tend to restrain pets. But, even for those who are, I don't think it's fair to restrain the cat. Not only has my kitty lived with me longer than the dog has even been alive, kitty knows that he is smaller, and therefore more vulnerable, than the dog. I don't ever want my cat to feel unsafe. Not only does that create acrimony, but it also predisposes the cat to go on the defensive and attack the dog... kind of defeating the purpose.

Rule 1: The cat must always feel safe.
Rule 2: The cat must always have a choice about whether or not to participate.
Rule 3: Management always happens in parallel to training.

Thankfully, we have a very easy way to start the classical conditioning process without stressing the cat out: through smell. The first thing I did with Lola was to rub a cloth all over my cat to get his scent on it. Later on, when the cat wasn't around (because we weren't all living together yet, but also because management, remember?), I presented the cat-cloth to Lola to investigate. After about five seconds, I put the cloth behind my back, gave her an amazing treat, and then brought the cloth back out for her to smell again. I repeated this process until Lola was no longer interested in the smell and was instead demanding cookies.

I repeated this sequence several times, and each time we did the exercise, Lola was less interested in the cloth. At this point, you may want to use a new/different object to hold the cat's scent so that you are actually conditioning your dog to the smell, and not the cloth. I didn't do this, but wish I had.

The next step happened when we all moved in together. We created a "safe room" for our kitty. This room had his litterbox, a water dish, his food bowl, a comfy bed, and some cat nip. I always do this when I move with a cat; it seems easiest for them to adjust if they only need to see one room at a time. However, this gave us the bonus of allowing Lola to be able to smell and hear the cat - but not see him. This is important because it helps keep the dog under threshold by limiting the amount of cat stimuli she's exposed to. Then we just fed them on the other side of the door from each other to help create good feelings.

You'll note that I said that both animals were being fed during this process. Classical conditioning should be done for both animals whenever possible. For our kitty, being barked at was pretty unpleasant, and we wanted to minimize any stress or grumpiness on his part.

Rule 4: Condition both animals to reduce stress on the cat.

The next step was to allow the animals to be in the same room together, feeding and praising them both for calm interactions. For the safety of the cat, the dog should be wearing a leash. If you aren't holding the leash, you should be able to reach it quickly in order to intervene. If you're at all worried that the dog will grab the cat and you'll need to break up a fight (or worse), you're moving too fast. Slow down, take a step back, and then come back to this step when you don't think your dog will eat your cat.

Rule 6: Don't take chances. Cats are small and vulnerable to a physical attack. Move slowly. 

You can gradually increase the amount of time the two spend together, keeping in mind that good management should be going on when you aren't present either physically or mentally. You should continue to tell both animals how amazing they are (and back that up with deliciousness whenever possible) for a long time. Classical conditioning needs to happen for a long time in order to solidify a strong positive emotion.

At some point, though, you will want to begin introducing some operant elements- some purposeful commands that you can give (the dog; cats are trainable, but it's such a pain to do it) that will help direct the dog on what to do. This can be used to get out of some tight spots, or when mistakes happen (and they will). I'll talk about that in my next post.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Project Gratitude: Help with Allie's Medical Bills!

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project GratitudePlease email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

Way back when, before I had four dogs, before Maisy was "normal," before I even started this blog, I met my friend Nicky in reactive dog class. We bonded over having crazy dogs, and even when the class ended and our instructor moved away, we continued to get together for lunch and coffee dates and dog walks. She supported me through the dissolution of my marriage, through the subsequent Hard Times, celebrated when I met someone new, and talked me into adopting Pyg. (She'll never admit it, but he is all her fault.)

So I'm very happy to donate to a cause that is important to her. Nicky's sister has cancer. And, as we all live in the US, this has resulted in massive medical bills. Insurance is great and all, but it only goes so far in our country. Nicky's sister has lost time from work, and has bills around $20,000 now. I have no idea how she's managing, but I'm glad to pay it forward, no matter how little I have to share.

Will you help, too? It would mean a lot to Nicky, to her sister, and to me.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Birthday, Napi!

Today is the day we celebrate Napi's 2nd birthday. In truth, we don't know exactly how old he is, although 2 is a pretty good guess for him. We also celebrate Napi's Gotcha Day today, although that isn't his exact date either (that actually happens July 6th).

You all remember Napi's story, right? The dog who belonged to my fiance's neighbors? Cesar saw the neighbors beating him, went over and said, "you don't like the dog, so give him to me or I call the cops," and came home with a new dog. He meant to find him a new home, but... well, he's about as good at fostering as I am.

Napi is not a dog I would have ever chosen for myself. I don't particularly care for chihuahuas, I didn't want another crazy dog, and he's not even scruffy! But over the past year, I've grown to love Napi deeply. Napi is a definite mama's boy. Wherever I am, he is. As I type this, he is curled up next to me, his chin resting on my leg. I am very, very glad this dog is in my life.

So happy birthday and welcome home, baby boy! We love you so very much.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Many Ears of Pyg

Pyg has the dumbest* ears. 
This series of photos was taken over a 15 minute period.
No, I don't know why they keep changing.
They just do this.

*Dumbest or coolest? Totally up for debate.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scaredy Cat, Part 2: The First Step is Management

My fiance's dog Lola and my cat Nicky will be living together soon. Lola's scared of the kitty, and while they don't need to be best friends, they do need to tolerate living in the same space as one another since neither is going to be finding a new home. I've begun the process of rehabbing their relationship, and I'm bringing you all along for the ride.

As the title implies, the very first step in behavior modification is management. Management is all the stuff we do to prevent a dog from doing things we don't like. In Lola's case, I don't want her fixating on and barking at my cat. There are three reasons management is so important that it's the first thing I'm discussing.

The first, and most important reason, is safety. As much as we don't want to believe that our beloved pups could hurt another animal, the truth is that the vast majority of the time, the dogs in our lives are stronger than the cats. Something as simple as over-zealous play could have fatal consequences. But even when your pets are similar in size, kitties with claws can be mighty nasty... and cat bites are nasty cesspools of germs.

Second, we want to prevent rehearsal. You know that saying, “Practice makes perfect”? Yeah, it's just as true for dogs as it is for humans... and it includes both desirable and undesirable behaviors. You don't want your dog to get better at chasing your cat, and I don't want Lola to develop a habit of barking at my kitty. Worse, by allowing your dog to continually harass your cat (and vice versa, because let's be honest, cats can be big jerks sometimes), you will undo all that hard work you're going to be doing.

Finally, management allows us to keep the dog under threshold. Keeping a dog under threshold keeps him in his rational, thinking mind and prevents him from going off in an overly-emotional, overreacting, irrational state. You can't train a dog who can't learn, so we need to keep him under threshold.

So, how does one effectively manage a dog/cat relationship? Well, as so much in dog training, it depends. It depends on what your dog is doing, how severe it is, how the cat is reacting, and what your living situation is. The bottom line is that until your dog and cat are completely comfortable together, you must either be actively working to improve their relationship, or you must be preventing them from interacting. And don't fool yourself: some dog/cat pairs may require management for their entire lives. (Dear g-d, I hope that's not Lola and Nicky.)

Here are some management ideas. They may not all work for your given situation, and I may not have listed every possible solution, but it should be a good start.

Crates are a time-honored way of keeping dogs out of trouble, and they are definitely one method of management I've been using with Lola. The downside of crates is that while they restrict the dog's movement, they do nothing to stop the cat from coming right up to the bars and taunting the dog. While everyone is safe, this doesn't prevent the dog from practicing some undesirable behaviors or from going over threshold.

Baby gates can be useful... depending on your cat. Since they can be pretty agile, it's often no big deal for kitties to go right over a gate. For that matter, there is no baby gate that my dog Pyg hasn't defeated. Bottom line, I would not depend on baby gates to be the sole form of management.

Better than gates are closed doors. Since our furry friends do not have opposable thumbs, most of the time a nice closed door is the best way to keep dogs and cats apart. Just make those doors are firmly latched!

Leashes can be used, either as a tie down to a heavy piece of furniture, or as an umbilical to a person... but only when you're present. I would honestly not trust a leash alone to protect everyone. Slipped collars, chewed leashes, and stronger-than-expected dogs all leave this as less-than-ideal when it comes to unattended pets.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas... and if so, I'd love to hear them. There are some truly brilliant minds reading my blog, and we all learn when you share!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scaredy Cat, Part 1: Introduction to Rehabbing a Cat/Dog Relationship Gone Bad

This is Lola:

And this is Nicky:

And Lola hates Nicky. Well, "hates" might be too strong of a word, but she is definitely not a fan. In fact, she finds the kitty to be downright scary. In true Basset fashion, Lola expresses herself by barking. A lot. And loudly. Not only does she bark constantly, she's decided the best way to do so is by getting thisclosetohisface. Nicky, unsurprisingly, finds this annoying and retaliates by swatting her with his fully-clawed paws. Which just makes her bark some more.

Oh, and did I mention that Nicky and Lola will be living together soon? Yeah. Clearly, something needs to be done here. Luckily, I've done tons of work helping dogs overcome fear in the last five or six years, so I'm up for the task.

I have a three-pronged plan in mind:
1. Management (click here for a somewhat-related post on management)
2. Classical Counter Conditioning (click here if you need a refresher on counter conditioning)
3. Teaching Operant Behaviors (click here to find out why)

My plan is to write one post for each of these prongs, as well as our progress along the way. If you have a dog/cat relationship that needs help, please let me know what kind of problems you're running into and I'll try to include information to address those concerns!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Project Gratitude: Trout the Dog

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude.

Please email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

This month, I'm a day late and a dollar short... or rather, several days late, as 6 days into the new month, I'm just now posting about last month. The dollar short is also literal, as I couldn't donate to project gratitude until I got paid today. Ah, well. It's not like there are really any rules... 

So this/last month, I donated to Trout the Dog. Trout has been sick for awhile now with weird and mysterious ailments. Her owner (and my best friend and also an awesome blogger in her own right) Sara has had Trout into the vet and a specialist a number of times... and everything so far has been inconclusive. They are waiting on one blood test to come back, so fingers crossed we get an answer! 

Now, Sara is the most financially responsible person I know. She is the master of thrift, incredibly disciplined, and plans for emergencies by having a good savings account. Unfortunately, most of that was eaten up by her dog Dobby, who suffered from seizures and ultimately was put to sleep. Sara's done her best, but Trout's care has now exceeded what she had on hand, and to be honest, I'm not quite sure how she's afforded everything thus far. 

One thing is clear though: Sara needs help in order to help Trout. Please, would you consider helping out?