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Accepting Dogs on Their Own Terms
It’s a skill cat lovers bring to the table

It sounds trivial to say it, but dogs and cats are very different animals. The experience of living with individuals of these two species is not the same in many ways. I know I am generalizing here and ignoring the many exceptions, but the typical cat is more independent that the typical dog, and usually more aloof. (Again, I know there are dogs who lean towards the standoff-ish, and cats who are clingy and constantly affectionate, but that’s not the most common way for members of those species to be. Think of it this way—it remains true that men are generally taller than women even though there are certainly individual women who are taller than individual men.)

My point here, and I’m sure you’re glad I’m getting to it, is that if someone has experience with cats, they may acquire perspectives and skills that are different from those acquired by people who spend all of their time with dogs. (It should go without saying that I have no problem with anyone spending all of their time with dogs!)  Those skills and perspectives can be very useful with certain dogs, though I’m not necessarily referring to dogs who are more cat-like in any way.

The dogs who benefit most from the knowledge of cat-savvy people are those who are shy, fearful or nervous. People who know cats well are completely on board with the fact that you can’t push or force a cat to be social with you. (It’s unwise to push or force a dog, either, by the way, but many dogs are easier to convince to engage with us than cats are.)

With cats, it is always wise to take it slow, let them come to you and ignore them until they show an interest in you. That is also true of fearful dogs, but many people who come into contact with a dog who is afraid try to cajole the dog into approaching, or try to lure the dog with toys or treats. People with cat experience are far less likely to try to take shortcuts like this, to the benefit of the dog in question. Cat-savvy people are used to the idea that you have to accept the animal on his own terms and to be patient. To be fair, many dog lovers also know this really well, but I find that it is almost universal among people who have spent a significant amount of time with their feline friends.

I was recently reminded of the wonderful way that many cat lovers have with shy, nervous or fearful dogs when my friend Betsy came over while I was watching a dog of that description. I told her that the dog was very sweet, though easily scared by new people, and that the best thing to do was to toss her some treats and then ignore her. Betsy did exactly that, and within minutes, I took this picture of a very happy dog (the lean one on the left with a tail wagging fast enough to look blurry) enjoying her new human friend. Throughout their initial interaction, Betsy always let the dog control the pace of their progress. She never pushed too hard to pet the dog or encouraged the dog to approach. She just waited and let the dog do what felt comfortable.

Do you have cat experience that has helped you in your interactions with dogs?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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Karen B. London
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Karen B. London
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Karen B. London
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