Today I visited eighteen month old German Shepherd Duke. He is a perfect example of how people unintentionally teach their dogs to do the very opposite of what they want.
When they first got him as a puppy he was fine with their cats. In fact he would sleep with one of them. However, as he got a bit older an maybe over-playful, his family became anxious. Their initial reaction involving scolding and panic would have started things on a downward spiral. The cats now stay well out of the way upstairs when Duke is about.
Gradually things have escalated to their current situation. As soon as he hears a cat jump off a bed upstairs or meow, Duke hurtles at the stair-gate, snarling and barking. If the cat is visible he is truly ferocious – they say like a totally different dog. They feel if he actually caught one of the cats he would kill it.
How did things come to this? I asked the four family members what each does when Duke charges at the stair-gate. All immediately shout at him and dive towards him. They may try to grab his collar, still shouting, and may wack him with a rolled-up newspaper – firing him up even further.
The other day Duke bit the teenage son who had the rolled newspaper in one hand and was trying to grab his collar with the other.
Let’s look at this through Duke’s eyes. Cats mean trouble – his humans have taught him this. As soon as he charges at the stair-gate, snarling, his humans join in – all making angry noises. They back him up. They behave aggressively towards him too.
While I was there we tried something different. A cat was moving about upstairs. I immediately dropped a tiny bit of food for Duke. Every time we heard a cat I fed him. It wasn’t long before one cat was halfway downstairs staring at Duke under the open side of the stairway. So we could all relax, I slipped a longish lead on him and, making sure it was loose, continued feeding him.
Soon the cat actually jumped down into the room, going under the coffee table beside us. Duke gave one alarm bark but that was all. He stared at the cat so I then decided he should do a bit more for the food – something to distract him that was incompatible with staring at the cat. It worked perfectly. We then called it a day and separated them. This was more than enough for one session.
The family could see how responsive Duke was to a gentle and calm approach. Nobody had taught him what he should do when worried about the cats. There are one or two simple things they can do to make things easier, like blocking the view of cats on the stairs.
If all the family can behave the same way with no more shouting, panic or rolled-up newspapers – showing Duke by their own behaviour that cats are cool, I’m sure they will be all live happily together, given time.