Sasha Struggle #1: Life with Cats

When we adopted Sasha from the Humane Society, we really didn’t know much about her. We knew that she was a “German Shepherd mix”, (meaning she sort of looks like a Shepherd but they actually had no idea), was around one year old, and was found running around as a stray in Alabama. However, we also knew that she was extremely friendly and loving towards people, and could really use a family who would give her tons of TLC, both of which made us say “she’s the one”.

The one reservation we had was that we had no idea how she would react to cats; the shelter workers didn’t have any information about this. Since my boyfriend and I already had two cats whom we needed to prioritize over a new pet, any aggression that Sasha showed towards them could be the one deal-breaker for us.

When bringing a new dog (or any pet) into a home that has cats, the best way to introduce them is through a cracked door or under a baby gate. But of course, things didn’t go as planned, and because my cat Hammy snuck out and was sitting on the kitchen table, his and Sasha’s first introduction occurred then and there, with Sasha on-leash.

Sasha’s reaction was a very excited one, and since everything happened so fast and we separated them quickly, it was hard to gauge if her behavior would escalate into aggression. Regardless, the next day we went back to square one: we closed a door in our apartment almost all the way, with Hammy on one side (with a safe hiding spot in case he got scared), and Sasha on the other. (My other cat, Sophie, is much more timid and was hiding in a safe spot this entire time).

Sasha’s reaction was a promising one: she was friendly and excited about the cat, but did not show signs of aggression. However, she was a little too excited about them, and I had a feeling that if they were given free access to the house again, Sasha would try to chase and/or play with them.

So next, I had to teach her to be calm and polite around the cats. To do this, I broke out really smelly, high-value treats and kept Sasha on-leash next to me, while Hammy was watching us from inside the bathroom. To teach Sasha to be calm with the cats, I rewarded her every time she did anything in their presence that resembled the behavior that I wanted. It started like this:

  • Every time Sasha looked at the cats while keeping her body language calm, I would give her a treat. We sat and did this the first day for about 25 minutes. Eventually she would look at the cat, and then immediately look at me to give her a treat (which is exactly what I wanted- she was way more interested in the treats than she was in the kitty).
  • The next step was teaching her to interact with them without trying to play or chase. Once she was consistently looking at Hammy and then looking back at me (while maintaining calm body language), I let her get a little bit closer. For some dogs, this might mean letting them approach the cat without letting quite letting them make contact. For Sasha, it meant letting her get close enough that she wasn’t touching Hammy, but so she could still sniff him (a few inches away).
  • I continued rewarding her for sniffing or looking at Hammy while remaining calm. Once she learned that being calm got her treats, she simply laid down next to me and watched Hammy calmly.

We kept doing this for several days, and eventually we got to the point where Hammy was brave enough to walk around with her laying there. Sasha remained calm because we had worked up to this, and she was still getting treats. Day by day, this escalated and became more challenging for her: it got to the point where she would be laying by me in the living room (still receiving tasty treats), with both cats walking around in plain sight.

As time went on, the novelty of the cats wore off. Sasha became less interested and eager to play with them, and we could gradually wean her off treats. These days, she only gets excited about them once in a while when she has energy to burn; in these moments, I play with her or remove her from the situation by taking her on a walk or to the dog park.

A few things to keep in mind, because every situation is different:

  • In my situation, it was only the dog that needed training; the cats had already had exposure to dogs and were not very afraid. In situations where a cat is scared of the dog, I recommend doing the training exercises with two people, with one person holding the dog and one sitting with the cat. That way somebody can be giving treats to the cat during the training so that they create positive associations with the dog.
  • These exercises are designed for dogs that are excited and/or curious about cats, but are not acting aggressively towards them. If your dog is truly aggressive and acting as if they want to hurt the cat, please keep them separate and seek the one-on-one advice of a professional.
  • Take it slow, and don’t push it. Sasha and my kitties took several weeks until they were peacefully coexisting, but every dog is different. Take it at your own pace.

Many dogs and cats can learn to be very good friends, given the proper introductions and training. I hope that your pets have as good of an experience together as mine did.

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These days, Hammy and Sasha enjoy a good cuddle on the couch together.

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