Kevin and his family had been visiting relatives in Ireland over the Easter break. Back home in Scotland, Molly is the only animal in the house, and she spends much of her time in the back garden. If one of the neighbour’s cats strolls through her territory, Molly doesn’t take well to it: she’ll vigorously chase the cat away. If she sees a cat through the window when she’s indoors, she’ll bark excitedly until it goes away.
Molly’s anti-cat attitude doesn’t cause problems at home, but it’s different when she’s brought over to visit Kevin’s mother-in-law in Ireland. She is a cat lover, with half a dozen felines living in her home, lounging over sofas, in corners and on beds. Molly’s agitated attitude does not go down well. She has to be kept on the leash at all times, and even then, she barks and yelps continually whenever there is a cat in the room. The cats don’t seem to mind too much: they barely budge when she barks, with a twitch of their tails the only sign that they notice her at all. This seems to aggravate Molly even more, driving her to bark even more excitedly. Kevin’s answer to date has been to keep Molly out of his mother-in-law’s home at all times. Molly eats and sleeps in their garage, and she’s kept on a short, tight leash on the rare occasions where she has to come indoors. Kevin contacted me to ask if anything can be done to change her attitude. He has seen photos of cats and dogs getting on well together, and he’d like Molly to achieve this level of tranquility with her cats-in-law.
Difficult to teach an old dog new tricks
I had bad news for Kevin: this is one of those situations where it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. At this stage in her life, Molly has a deeply engrained aversion to cats. Terriers have been bred to be hunting dogs, and they have a natural desire to chase creatures that are smaller than themselves. On top of this, Molly has spent most of her life enjoying running after cats. For over a decade, she has learned that cats dash away from her if she barks, and she is rewarded every time this happens by the pleasure of the chase. When she meets Irish cats that refuse to run away, she’s baffled and her understandable response is “bark harder, louder, and more often, and keep chasing them”.
In theory, Kevin should be able to teach Molly to quietly respect cats. He would do this by using a technique called “desensitisation and counter-conditioning”. The idea is first to “desensitise” Molly: get her used to cats being around by introducing them to the far side of the room while Molly is being distracted (e.g. by getting her to sit and stay in response to treats). The second part of the method (“counter-conditioning”) involves giving Molly extra treats as long as she remains calm and quiet in the presence of the cats. In theory, Molly would gradually learn that life would be better for her if she stopped reacting to cats: she would get more praise and treats.
Of course, it is much more difficult in practice. A retraining process like this takes many months, and a great deal of time and energy. The only problem for Kevin is Molly’s once yearly visit to his mother-in-law in Ireland, and it really isn’t a big enough issue to warrant so much hard work.
- Some dogs love chasing cats
- In theory, they can be trained not to do this
- In practice, it’s often easier just to keep cats away from cat-chasing dogs