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You are a huge animal lover. For years, work and family commitments meant that keeping a dog wasn't possible and so your beloved cats kept you company. But now things have changed. You moved to the country and work from home. If anything, you need a canine companion, especially a strong guarding dog such as a German shepherd, to give you extra security.
However, you are concerned. The cats came first and you have no wish to distress them or make life a misery. Obviously, dogs have a reputation for not getting on with cats, so you are keen to buck the trend and have a harmonious fur-family household. But how to go about this?
German shepherds have strong guarding instincts, which, added to the canine inclination to chase cats, has the potential for disaster written all over it. However, this doesn't have to be the case. Teaching a dog, any dog, to love cats is a matter of rewarding the dog when they ignore the cat or are relaxed in her presence. Over time, the message drops that being around cats is a good thing, and so the urge to chase is reduced.
However, never trust a German shepherd 100% around cats. It's best to supervise them together, and always ensure the cat has an escape route, a vertical one up a tall cat tree is fine, so that she isn't trapped should the worst happen.
To train a German shepherd to like cats requires patience and dedication. You make progress by rewarding the dog for being calm around the cat, but for every time the dog is quiet there will be times when he growls or barks trying to get to the cat. But be patient and consistent and you stand every chance of success.
The equipment needed includes:
- A collar and leash to restrain the dog
- A treat bag to keep rewards handy at all times
- A clicker
- A squeaky toy or other means of distracting the dog.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Do: Know puppies are quick learners
A puppy is far more receptive to learning how a cat is a family member rather than prey. If you have a cat household and desire to get a German shepherd, then bringing in a puppy is best all round.
Do: Know chasing is habit forming
When a dog chases a cat this is self-rewarding. The thrill of the chase makes the dog feel good and so he's more likely to repeat it in future. This is one of the reasons it's important to remove the possibility of the dog giving chase when you aren't present. As well as the safety aspect, it also makes it more difficult to retrain the dog.
Don't: Force the two species together
Yes, you want the dog to accept cats, but no, this isn't fair to do this at the expense of a distressed cat. If the cat is fearful, never force her into the room. Similarly, never force the two animals to interact as this will only cause stress and build resentment between them.
Do: Seek professional help
If your adult German shepherd has a deep-seated hatred of cats, then this can be difficult to correct. The best way forward is to get the help of a qualified animal behaviorist who can analyze flash points and put a bespoke strategy in place that will help.
Do: Use scent to introduce cats to dogs
Dogs have a sensitive sense of smell. Don't overlook using scent handshakes in order to build familiarity before the two meet. This is simply done by swapping their bedding around, so the dog sleeps on a cat-scented blanket and vice versa. Likewise, stroke the cat and then go and stroke the dog, swapping scents backwards and forwards.
The Socialization and Safety Method
Understand the idea
Cats and dogs often misunderstand each others body language, which means that appeasement signals given off by the cat go unnoticed by the dog. When a dog's natural instinct is to chase, and the cat quite rightly flees out of harm's way, then the dog learns that chasing cats is a fun recreation. Socializing a puppy with cats from a young age can help to diffuse this situation, by giving the young dog a healthy sense of respect for the feline species.
When you bring a German shepherd puppy home for the first time, do not allow him to chase the family cat. This starts thing off badly by building the link between cats and chasing. Instead, keep the puppy on a leash but allow the cat to stroll near him (Never leave them unsupervised) When the puppy is calm around the cat, praise him and give a treat. Hence, teaching him that the right thing is to be quiet and relaxed around a cat.
Don't leave them unsupervised
For safety's sake (the puppy as well as the cat--after all, cats can give a nasty scratch) never leave the dog and cat together unsupervised. At best, the dog may chase the cat and learn a bad habit, at worst one of them could get badly hurt.
Practice obedience training
Puppies over the age of 8 weeks learn quickly, and this is especially true of intelligent breeds such as the German shepherd. Hold regular obedience training sessions throughout the day, so that the puppy learns to listen to you. Make each session fun and be sure to use reward-based training methods. When the pup learns to listen to you, this gives you control of a situation where the puppy sees the cat and is thinking about giving chase.
Obedience train in the presence of the cat
Once the puppy is making progress with basic commands such as 'sit' and 'look', do some training in the presence of the cat. Keep the dog on a leash, just in case, but train him with the cat watching. This helps the pup overcome the novelty of seeing the cat and understand that what you say overrides any instinct to chase the cat. Pretty soon the pup will regard the cat as just another family member rather than a critter to be chased.
The Clicker Training Method
Understand the idea
Clicker training involves teaching the dog to associate the clicking sound made by a clicker, with getting a reward. This allows you to precisely mark the behavior for which the dog has earned the reward. In this case, you click and treat the dog when he is calm in the presence of the cat. This teaches him the appropriate behavior around cats is calmness.
Keep the dog and cat separate
For safety's sake, keep the cat and dog separate when you aren't training. This prevents injury and bad habits from developing, which will then make retraining even more difficult.
Link 'click' to a treat
First, teach the dog what the clicker means. To do this simply toss a treat on the floor, as the dog chows it down, press the clicker. Toss another treat and again click when he eats it. Keep repeating this. Pretty soon if you press the clicker ahead of tossing the treat, the dog will anticipate the reward and put his nose to the floor. Now you are ready to clicker train.
Control the dog
With the dog wearing a strong collar and lead, sit with him and keep a tight hold of the collar. Allow the cat to stroll into the room. Keep the dog's attention on you, perhaps using the 'look' command or using a squeaky toy. Any time the dog glances at the cat and then looks away, click and treat him. Work at this for a few minutes, rewarding the dog each time he ignores the cat. Don't overstretch the dog and have a friend remove the cat after a few minutes.
Repeat while watching TV
Now make the sessions a little longer, such as while you watch a TV program in the evening. Keep the dog beside you on the leash, and keep hold of him. Allow the cat to wander freely. When the cat enters the room, click and treat any behavior the dog shows that is about ignoring the cat or being relaxed around her. This helps the dog realize there's more to be gained by doing nothing, than by chasing or being aggressive.
Let the cat set the pace
This learning process is a two-way street. The cat will grow confident (especially if they are young) when she realizes the dog is unable to chase (because you are holding the collar). As she approaches more closely, be sure to keep rewarding the dog's good behavior. Eventually, the dog will welcome the cat's advances as a way of earning treats and praise for doing nothing and overlook the opportunity to give chase.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 02/13/2018, edited: 01/08/2021