When the Claws Come Out:
Clicker Training an Acceptable Working Relationship between Dogs and Cats
I heard barks, growls, hisses and clawed feet on linoleum. When I went in the kitchen to investigate, my fears were confirmed. Smokey had Apollo cornered, he was dripping blood, and Apollo’s white back was smeared red. My first thought was only of getting the animals separated. Boldly (and perhaps unwisely), I grabbed Smokey’s collar and pulled him back, freeing Apollo, who promptly hopped over the baby gate and bounded down the basement steps. Smokey whined after his lost prey, but didn’t bite me (which he could have and by all rights, should have).
I called for Joe to bring the Neosporin and set to tending Smokey’s wounds. After his nose was cleaned up, I went downstairs to check on Apollo who was shaking in the corner, his tail still puffed out like a sail. I settled him down then began to examine him. Not a scratch, all the blood was Smokey’s. I sighed, gave him his dinner, and tried to figure out if it was too late to declaw the little demon. When I went back upstairs, I got out the mop, cleaned up Smokey’s blood, wiped down the windowsills and the walls where there was still more blood and checked Smokey’s nose again, making sure we weren’t in for a long night at the emergency vet. The blood made it look more serious than it was, but still, Smokey and Joe sat on the couch, glowering at me. They both had the same look of contempt. “I hate that cat” sentiment permeated through the room.
This incident occurred during our very early days of clicker training. We had barely just begun to conquer Smokey’s dog aggression, Apollo had only lived with us for about four days, and I cursed the SPCA under my breath. I remembered the little checklist on Smokey’s take home paperwork vividly and even went to the cabinet to pull Smokey’s file to look at it again:
Ha! Next thing, I thought, he is going to be snarling at the neighbor kids. Great.
So, when our trainer came over next, I had news for her, “The dog hates the cat, what can we do about that?”
She started to tell us about clicker training a cat, but I wasn’t having that. That seemed way too much for me to believe at that stage of my crossover. All right, I would believe this for dogs, but for cats? I don’t think so.
We got another option. Teaching a “leave it”. We never really had to teach Smokey a “leave it”, mainly because when we first adopted him, he never touched anything. He always seemed to innately know which toys were his and which weren’t. The chewing phase that he did go through was solved entirely by introducing puzzle toys. So we started down the road of “leave it”. We started with a low value food, his kibble. We would put a piece of kibble in our hands and when he finally stopped licking our hands, we would click and give him a high value reward (cheese) from our pocket. After this was solid, we upped the game. Now, instead of just leaving our hand alone, to get a click and a treat, he had to look away from our hand. Then, he had to look at us. Then we put the kibble on the floor. When he didn’t charge after it, he got a click and a treat. When he did, we quickly scooped the kibble off the floor. Eventually, we lengthened the distance. Then we upped the value of the reward. No longer did we use kibble, instead we used small pieces of Beggin Strips, one of his favorites, but still not in line with cheese in his book. We repeated the whole process again. Then we upped the game once more and used cheese. Cheese in exchange for cheese. This was a very tough game. But the kitty is a very high value reward, so we knew he had to be prepared.
During the couple weeks of short sessions of training, we kept Apollo safe, letting him up into the house when Smokey was out on walks, or at night when he was in bed with us. I spent lots of time with Apollo down in his basement lair, Joe built him a two story home complete with bed, scratching post, and toy holders. When we felt we were ready, we opened the basement door and waited for Smokey to find the kitty. It didn’t take long.
As soon as Smokey’s fur went up, “Leave it”. He looked in our direction, click and treat. He ran back to us. Apparently, cheese is much more important than the cat. When he got his treat, he turned around and charged back. “Leave it” click and treat. Apollo fled downstairs, but it didn’t take him long to come back up, and when he did, we were ready, “Leave it” click and treat.
Smokey’s Apollo approaches began to slow. After about five minutes of click and treats, he decided it was more beneficial to be closer to the treat. He sat in front of us and waited for another opportunity to be clicked. He laid down, click and treat. Lazily, he turned his head to see if Apollo was still there. “Leave it”, he looked back, click and treat.
Brazenly, Apollo stepped forward and began to sniff Smokey’s tail. Smokey’s eyes never moved from ours. Click and jackpot treat.
We let Apollo take a few turns about his new territory, before we called Smokey out of the kitchen, clicked and treated and ushered Apollo back into the basement, which he was happy to do.
The next session didn’t start out as strong as the last one had ended, but for every one step back, Smokey made four steps forward. After a month or so of “leave its”, clicks and treats, he didn’t bother Apollo at all. Apollo still prefers to stay in the basement (after all, all his toys and his house are down there, as is the food), but when he wants to come up, he comes up and hangs, and Smokey just stares at him, keeping a distance.
As for Shelby, after a few training sessions just like Smokey’s, Shelby and Apollo are becoming fast friends. They romp, they jump on one another, they scurry about the kitchen like banshees. Smokey, for his part, will watch, but never join in, which is fine for us. We never really wanted or needed them to be friends; we just needed to not have to clean up blood all the time.
Shelby will sit in the kitchen with Apollo and groom him while Apollo just licks his paws, as if to say, “Yes dog, you know your place.” And we got to take the baby gate away, which was great, since I had a tendency to nearly fall down the steps every time I tried to carry laundry down.
The most important thing during this process is to keep in mind your animals’ limitations. The saying, “they fight like cats and dogs” came from somewhere. Dogs and cats are completely different animals, just like you and your dog. Miscommunications abound. Cats are not highly social animals, dogs are. A happy cat does not typically resemble a happy dog. While some things are the same, there is very little in common between the two species and just throwing them together and expecting them to get along because you love them both is a bad idea. It can also be dangerous. Try to keep your expectations low. Start with, “I would like for my dog and cat to not kill each other.” Then up your game. Don’t be disappointed if that fairytale goal that every animal lover has in mind doesn’t work out. Be extremely pleased if it does.
Smokey and Apollo will never love each other. They will never play, they will never groom each other; they will never fall asleep curled up against one another. But that’s okay, because they won’t kill each other either. And that, to me, is plenty, but I’m a glass half full kind of gal, and it’s all about perception.