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.