Exploring the reward-based training methods used to teach a cat and dog to happily co-exist
byTori Ganino CDBC, CPDT-KA
Background Si is an approximately six-year-old domestic short haired tabby cat. He was found as a stray when he was about one year old. At the time, our home consisted of two dogs and two other cats. Si instantly snuggled with the cats but would only observe the dogs from atop the cat trees. After a few months he fully settled in and did not mind the dogs, except when he was on our bed and they went towards it. Si would run to the end of it and air swat towards the dogs. Seeing that the dogs were indifferent, we didn’t do anything about the situation. Jeter came to us when he was approximately eight years old. A chihuahua terrier mix weighing 30 pounds, he was hard of seeing, plagued by separation anxiety, extremely nervous of people, and his history was unknown. Jeter was put on a modified two week shut down. This is where he was slowly exposed to the environment and various stimuli over a two-week period. He would stay in his safe place, a room of his own with a baby gate in the doorway, while we worked on his separation anxiety. Our other two cats had since passed away and our other dogs were kept on a different level of the house in order to decrease environmental stimuli during this time. It was obvious from day one that Jeter was extremely focused on Si, though non-aggressively. Si was also extremely skittish and hesitant to even walk by Jeter’s room. Knowing the importance of having a home where they could both enjoy each other’s company, I laid out our goals for our family and then established a management and training plan.
The Goal The ultimate goal was for Jeter and Si to enjoy each other’s company and be able to relax while the other was in view. In order to achieve this, both pets needed to reach their own milestones. For Jeter, he needed to develop a strong behavior in place of chasing Si. This is known as “differential reinforcement of an alternate behavior”, or DRA. The behavior I chose was to see Si while holding a stay on his bed (mat), and then be able to disengage from him. Si’s would prove to be more of a challenge. This is because we needed to change his emotions about Jeter from a negative to a positive through counter conditioning training. This is called creating a “positive conditioned emotional response”, or +CER. In other words, Jeter’s presence would predict everything wonderful that Si enjoys. Eventually, the goal would be for Si to see Jeter and feel happy due to Jeter’s association with rewards. We would then fade off of the rewards while maintaining the +CER. I did have an advantage when working with these two. Si had already been trained to a clicker, and knew various tasks such as offering his paws for nail trims and nose targeting items. Jeter knew the hand signals for sit and down, was very food motivated, and an extremely quick learner. I had high hopes that our goal would be obtainable.
Management Jeter’s modified two-week shutdown consisted of no physical contact with Si nor either of the other dogs. He was able to see them in passing and exposure was slowly introduced over that time frame. This is advice that I have given to my own clients many times when helping them transition a newly adopted dog into their home. Just like many of my clients, I found myself wanting to speed up the process. The great thing about networking with other trainers is that we are there to support each other with cases and with our own pets. Even though Jeter was good with other dogs, Rich Allen from Wags to Rich’s, encouraged me to stick to the training plan, and every good training plan starts with managing the environment so unwanted behaviors could not be practiced. Three baby gates were put in place. The first one was at the entrance to Jeter’s room. The second was at the entrance to a spare bedroom. This was so Si could easily access a room to get away from Jeter, but Jeter would not be able to follow. This is also where a cat box, water, and his meals were placed. The third gate was at the top of the stairway. This enabled me to have a door and a gate as a barrier to the downstairs where the other dogs stayed. The door to Jeter’s room was left open when we were training, and closed when we were not. This was to prevent Jeter from barking and running at Si as he passed by the baby gate. I also wanted to make sure that I was able to work with Si every time he saw Jeter. Developing a +CER can be very delayed if the rewards only happen some of the times that Jeter was present in the beginning stages of the training. The same was true for Jeter. I wanted to develop a strong DRA of relaxing on his mat when he saw Si. Any charging or barking would delay the process. A harness and leash were used for Jeter when he was out of his room to protect his neck if he pulled, and to prevent him from chasing Si.
Week One Training for Jeter The beginning of Jeter’s first week with us consisted of him learning foundation behaviors, which included a verbal marker of “yes” to let him know he had done something right and a reward will be coming from me, recognizing and immediately responding to his name with me only having to say it once, “leave it” so I would be able to tell him to leave Si alone, and mat work where he would go to his mat and hold a stay with minimal distractions
While we worked on the foundation behaviors, Si was not in view. It was important to break down the tasks into easy and fun sessions with little distractions. This is so he would be better prepared for success while in Si’s presence. Just like I can’t focus on learning a new task if there is music on in the background, I would not expect Jeter to focus on learning the foundation behaviors with Si in view. When I found that Jeter was responding to my cues at least 80% of the time and understanding the activities, I decided to open the door, keeping the baby gate closed, and started to work Jeter and Si together. Jeter was positioned on his mat and Si had free roam of the rest of the upstairs. Every time that Jeter looked at Si as he peeked around the corner, I immediately used my verbal marker of “yes”. This prompted Jeter to then look back to me for a treat. His head immediately oriented back towards Si and I said “yes” again. This activity is called “click the trigger”. We did this for about a minute, making sure that Jeter was staying on his mat and quickly responding to me. By practicing this activity, Jeter was learning that he should look back to me when he saw Si.
Si would tuck his head back out of view and I would then release Jeter to get off of his mat. As soon as Jeter saw Si reappear, I used my verbal marker, rewarded, and then sent him to his mat. Being a very fast learner, I was able to quickly move to the second step: allowing Jeter to look at Si for up to five seconds and choose what he should do. Sure enough, Jeter thought about the situation and looked back to me in anticipation of a reward. This is called “scans and check-ins”. I said “yes” and then placed a special treat on his mat. At this time Si started moving around more. Week One Training for Si Positioned on the outside of the gate, Si was allowed to control the situation by being given the ability to increase or decrease the distance between himself and Jeter as he pleased. This was so I did not accidentally cause Si to have a “fight or flight” reaction where he felt the need to attack Jeter to defend himself, or run away to seek safety. It was extremely important that I did not pick up Si and force him to be in view of Jeter, hold him so Jeter could smell him, nor lure him into Jeter’s view with a treat. Not only would I begin to lose Si’s trust, but I would be putting him into situations that he was clearly not comfortable with, especially if I restrained him. This technique is called “flooding” and can be detrimental to any animal. Flooding occurs when an animal is kept into a situation where it afraid and is unable to escape, and can cause an animal to emotionally shut down. I was not looking for lack of behavior from Si, which is what you would see from an emotionally shutdown animal. Instead of using the aversive techniques described above, Si was rewarded with special treats every single time he looked at Jeter. Reward timing as I tossed him treats was critical. The food needed to come after he looked at Jeter so he could learn to associate Jeter with rewards. If I had given Si food before he looked at Jeter, I would inadvertently teach him that the presence of food was bad because it meant that Jeter, who he was afraid of, would be appearing. With the food aiding in creating a +CER by starting to change Si’s brain chemistry as it prompted the release of dopamine, a pleasure transmitter, the training plan was well on its way.
Week Two Training Together Jeter was able to complete his activities with ease, and Si was becoming more relaxed. I decided to move our sessions to my bedroom and bring Jeter’s mat out with him. The mat was placed across from the bed at about five feet away. Jeter was kept on leash and Si was able to access my bed, the dresser, the night stand, and one exit into the hallway. Jeter had been successfully looking at Si and disengaging on his own when in his room. Seeing that I made the activity harder by moving to another room, I took a step back with Jeter’s training so I did not expect so much from him. Instead, I used the click the trigger activity as soon as he looked at Si. If Si made a quick movement, I rewarded Jeter with a handful of small treats on his mat, called a “jackpot.” Just like I would need a bonus for doing extra work at my job, Jeter needed to be rewarded, or paid extra, for working through the difficult task of Si’s sudden movements close to him. After one session that lasted approximately five minutes, Jeter moved on to scans and check-ins.
Over the next week, Si and Jeter worked together daily for sessions that lasted between five and fifteen minutes. I used their meals as opportunities to work and hand fed them a few pieces at a time. Si’s comfort increased and he was also rewarded for any relaxation that he showed. Like Jeter, he moved to scans and check ins. Sessions were ended before Si decided that he had had enough of the training and walked away. I wanted to leave him wanting more so he was eager to train the next time. Jeter continued to work on his foundation behaviors in other rooms so he would be fluent with them no matter where he was.
Management Fails By the end of the second week and into the beginning of the third week since arriving at our home, Jeter was spending more time out of his room. He stayed on leash and chose my bed to be one of his favorite places to relax. One evening, Si entered the room, and Jeter’s with presence on the bed unbeknownst to him, jumped on the bed and the two were suddenly nose to nose. I immediately gave Jeter the “leave it” cue which he followed. Si jumped off the bed and disappeared into another room, and Jeter immediately received a jackpot. I thought a disaster had been adverted until I went to sleep that night and discovered cat urine soaked through my sheets. I removed all sheets from my bed unless I was sleeping in it. Next to the bed I placed an additional cat box with a top entry so Jeter could not stick his head in.
A second cat tree was purchased and put within jumping range from my bed. My hope was that the modifications that I made to the environment would assist Si and help him work through the setback. It turns out, they did.
Week Three Training Together Christmas was approaching and I found wrapping presents as the perfect opportunity for training. With Jeter on his mat, Si on the bed, and myself stationed between them, Si began to decrease the distance and come closer to where I was. Jeter handled staying on his mat like a pro and I finally started to see the playful side of Si as he batted around the bows. I began reducing the amount of rewards each pet got in their training sessions.
Finally, by the end of week three, the beginning signs of a +CER from Si started to show. Jeter had entered the room with a toy in his mouth and trotted past Si. I looked to Si and saw him go from a sit to a roll on his side. When Jeter laid down a few feet from Si, Si proceed to bat Jeter’s tail around in a playful manner as he purred. I then allowed Jeter to start to drag his leash around instead of me holding it, and soon he wasn’t wearing one at all. When Jeter would approach the bed as Si relaxed on it, Si did not charge the end of it like he did with the other dogs. At this time, I felt comfortable enough to put sheets back on my bed.
The Turning Point Jeter went for emergency exploratory surgery in early January of 2018. While recovering on my bed, Si displayed a full +CER when he jumped next to Jeter and relaxed just a few feet away. Over the next few days, Si got closer and closer.
The two continued to bond as Jeter healed. Once fully healed, Si remained relaxed no matter how close Jeter was to him, and they could both approach each other without Si fleeing and Jeter perusing. I then decided to place pet steps next to the bed so Jeter could easily access it at any time.
Fast Forward Four Months Later Si still has a baby gate the blocks off Jeter’s access to the spare bedroom so that he can have a safe place to escape to if he feels the need for it. A second cat box remains upstairs and the cat tree is positioned within jumping distance from the bed. The training process was slow and the management plan was strict. I know that if it was not for these, Jeter would still be chasing Si, and Si would still be peeing on my bed. Today, Si and Jeter can be found regularly napping and playing together.
What is even better to see is that Si is the one that most often seeks out Jeter for his company.
Tori Ganino CDBC, CPDT-KA is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC, Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed through the CCPDT, and a member of International Canine Behaviourists (ICB) and the International Companion Animal Network (ICAN). She owns Calling All Dogs located in Batavia, NY where she teaches group classes and private lessons for obedience and behavior modification.
You can find out more about Tori on her website callingalldogsNY.com