Contrary to popular belief, dogs can be cool with cats and even form strong friendships with them, but not all dogs do.
Whether a dog is prosocial or not depends on if and how he experienced cats during the early developmental stages, but genes also play a role. Our Will, probably exposed to cats where she was born and for sure in her last foster home, is good with them, but also with animals she likely did not encounter. Our Newfy Baywolf was much the same, but in contrast, Aussie Davie would kill any small, non-dog animal without hesitation had she had the opportunity, which, except once, she didn’t.
With us, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is good with cats or not. We never owned one and aren’t planning on it, not because we dislike cats, but because we like dogs more. Many people, though, are equally fond of cats and dogs and share their home with both species, and then it matters a whole lot that the canine matches pawsitively with everyone.
When a shelter or rescue organization takes a dog into their care, there often is no, or unreliable, information available what he is like with cats. It is a no-brainer that if additional facts aren’t collected, adopting him to a family that has cats is rolling the dice.
However, sometimes there is information that suggests that the dog is good with cats, and that is how he is presented to potential adopters, and then, in the new home, he isn’t. What gives? Were the rescuers deceptive? I don’t think so.
More likely, perhaps the shelter or foster parents observed the dog only in few circumstances, in which he was good, and they concluded that he is good period. That seems reasonable, but is not necessarily correct because context counts. In a relationship, it is always an input/output dance of sender(s) and receiver that determine behavior, and a cat who is especially skittish, bossy, or animated can provoke a different reaction than one who is savvy and chilled out. Along that line, in order to get an accurate evaluation, a dog must experience a cat in motion. Seeing one held in a person’s arm or in a crate isn’t good enough.
The dog should also be a bit bored when tested. Why? Because if he lives, let’s say, in a home where there are other dogs to play and romp with, the cat is a more or less irrelevant sideshow. Minus these dogs in a new home, she arouses interest and becomes the target.
A dog can perceive a cat as a resource competitor and act adversely only around a possession that might not have been available at the shelter, and hence, aggression wasn’t observed there. Keep in mind that people can be a very important resource once a dog is bonded.
A dog in a shelter or foster home can be anxious because he was suddenly thrust into this new environment, and that can play out as over-reacting to something, or not at all - treading very cautiously. It is called honeymoon period, and I’ll talk about it some more in my next post.
Or the dog might have been harshly punished for aggressive displays, and in the new home, with the effective punisher and the threat of pain gone, how he really feels about cats is expressed again.
If inadvertent mistakes were made and the new dog doesn’t get along with the resident feline, can that be fixed? It depends.
Resource guarding, in most cases, can be solved when approached correctly.
If the dog is just a little uneasy because he is generally worried about new things, or cats, or that particular cat, there is a good chance that the relationship can work once she has become familiar and is perceived as a safe, even positive, appearance. In that case, all it takes is patience, and training helps, and of course until that happens careful management to avoid that the cat is within teeth range is crucial.
When a dog is bored and tagged the cat as “it”, peaceful cohabitation is possible if he can fairly easily be motivated into doing something else, like playing with a toy or emptying a filled Kong. In time, the cat could become the cue for that alternate activity.
If the dog is difficult to re-motivate and not interested in anything but the cat whenever he spots it, she is at risk.
It could be that the dog is genetically prone to, and serious about, controlling space and movement of other animals, that he has a strong prey drive, or is truly hostile toward cats. With Davie, we had a triple whammy: she was innately bossy, had a heightened sensitivity to things in motion and the impulse to chase, but with cats there was an additional component not present with other animals: A learned and experienced at one point, I am sure, aspect that made her downright vicious toward that species. Just to be clear, lack of obedience wasn’t the issue here. Davie had a near perfect recall, and knew “leave”, including with cats, but for a lifetime needed that precise instruction, and even though I got body compliance, her mind was still fixated on the cat she saw and she was keen to get to it, and that was impossible to change. In addition, she stayed pumped for quite some time after it was out of her view. Prolonged recovery is another sign that the problem is a major one.
There are people who claim that you can shock even the worst dog into liking cats, or at least not killing them, but I wouldn’t bet my hypothetical kitty’s life on what happens when I have my back turned or the battery is empty.
The most humane solution for such a dog is a cat-free home. And even with the less severe cases, whether to pursue behavior modification depends if the people can manage well in the interim, but also if the cat’s quality of life can be maintained. Some cats become very stressed when they’re targeted by the new dog, and begin to refuse to join their humans socially, stop playing, even urinate and defecate in inappropriate places.
Testing dogs well with cats can be a difficult task because a cat, or safe evaluation area, isn’t always available.
Testing dogs how they respond to dogs is much easier, and yet, I see the same problems, more often than you might think. A dog is said to be good with dogs, and then isn’t in the new home. Methinks the reasons are the same: resources, dynamics, suppressed expressions, and the inaccurate assumption that because he plays nicely with familiar dogs when off the leash, that he is equally affable with unfamiliar dogs on an on-leash walk. He might, or he might not be.
I had a few clients where there was a huge discrepancy between what they were told, and what the dog was like once adopted. Characterized as so amazing at the shelter that he was utilized as a balancing playmate or test dog to evaluate others, in the new home he showed such severe behaviors that his owners were unable to walk him. I am wondering about the popular practice to team up an even-tempered pooch with aggressive or rowdy ones. I am questioning if it is ethical. It appears that there is potential for fallout - a real risk that the good dog becomes anxious and defensive, and sometimes the damage caused is long-term.
Lay people take for fact what they are told. Good with cats and dogs is exactly what they expect, and when that is not the case they are shocked, and sometimes feel cheated even though the rescue didn’t cheat, just didn’t know. Which means that a dog either needs to be observed in a variety of situations, including when he has a valuable resource, or the shelter/rescue has to state that the dog is good in the contexts they evaluated, but may or may not be in situations that would be part of his life in the new home.