Dog Training and Cat Agility

Redirect the substantial energy of your frustration and turn it into positive, effective, unstoppable determination.

 - Ralph Marston

I’ve finally become one of you…in the trenches.  Dealing with unwanted behavior.  The constantly on the table grabbing for food.  Acting out of control and breaking a lot of things.  Just acting like a terror in general.  The difference is, this is my kitten, Pixel.

This is what karma looks like

This is what karma looks like

Yes, I’ve had these problems with dogs in the past, but I tend to buckle down quickly and focus on addressing these problems.  They subside, if not disappear, entirely within a few days.  Granted, I’ve been training dogs since before I was born, but still, I’ll admit I’ve had it easy when it comes to the general “livability” of my dogs.  Yes, Orion has a nervous bent to him, which I frequently need to Pilot him through, but it’s like night and day compared to how he was when he first joined our herd (I’ve decided since we have 2 cats and 2 kids, it’s not a pack anymore…it’s a herd.  I’m certain Pixel has something to do with my change of mind.)  Yes, Sparta is very dog-reactive, but we manage that very well.  In the house, my pack was a dream to live with.  No destruction, barking only at legitimate (in their mind at least) things, and then immediately ceasing and looking to me for the next step.  Even Echo, my beautiful white cat, was more like a well-behaved dog: coming when I called him, never scratching anything, even tempered.

Then came Pixel.  For those of you who don’t know, Pixel and his sister were both found in the woods by me during one of our Pack Walks.  We decided to keep one.  Some days I wonder if I made the wrong decision.  His sister was so sweet and docile!

Now I’m stuck with this kitten who is becoming a cat.  Yesterday was the last straw.  He had been up on the mantel systematically knocking off all of my plants, killing them and breaking their pots.  I wanted to kill him.

I realized I needed to take a step back.  Deep breaths.  Afterall, he’s just a kitten (although soon to be a cat).  I needed to take my anger and frustration out on him, but decided to do it in a positive way rather than a negative way.  (Note: I still answered his question about the mantel, “No, you can not go up there”, but I still had a LOT of residual anger left over.)  I decided to teach my cat agility.

Agility - it's like an exorcism for your animal.  Okay, for you, too.  Brittany Graham Photography
Agility – it’s like an exorcism for your animal. Okay, for you, too.
Brittany Graham Photography

Agility (or any tricks in general) with dogs is awesome because you are asking them to let you Pilot them through a situation for which there is a reward at the end for doing so.  I’ve done it a lot of times all the time with dogs, and when they finally “get” it, it’s a huge burst of positive for both of us.  We are working together as a team.

It works with dogs.  What about cats?  I knew I needed to do something with this little beast other than constantly getting after him.  We started off simply, with a yard stick on the ground, and me literally dragging him over it with his favorite treat, repeating the words “over, over, over” until he made it completely across.  He did it!!! And he loved it!!!!!  I was so proud of him.  After about 5 minutes of this, I was able to start giving him the command without using the treat as bait, only giving it to him when he made it across on his own.

This was awesome!  I was finally able to give this damn sweet kitten some positive reinforcement, even if it was contrived. Who cares! I was psyched and pumped.  I’ve never been able to do agility with a cat before (the thought never, fortunately, crossed my mind).

How many of you out there have dogs who you are at wits end with?  Who when you come home to a new mess, a new bout of barking, new dog reactivity, have had it up to <here> with your dog?  You’ve forgotten that there are indeed positives.  And guess what, if there aren’t, you can create them. Give them a reason for you to be happy and praise them.  If I can wring a positive response from Pixel, you can get one from your dog as well.

So what have I learned about cats vs. dogs? Cats can be trained to tricks much easier than I anticipated. I guess the major differences is that after you get a dog to do the jump, they immediately look at you as if to say, “What’s next?”. A cat looks around and may walk away to find out what’s next. Cats are on autopilot. It can be difficult to keep their attention.  So we worked at it.  Even Echo got into the fun.

Eric (9) teaching Echo the basics of agility.

Eric (9) teaching Echo the basics of agility.

So instead of stewing in my anger and frustration, I’ve decided to boil it off.  Or as I look at it, give me a reason not to kill this kitten.  Today.  But it’s okay…I’ve got enough treats to last through the week.  Then things get iffy.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio
Cat Training in Times of Desperation




I’m a true believer in karma. You get what you give, whether it’s bad or good.

Sandra Bullock

This is what karma looks like

This is what karma looks like

You know what they say about karma?  I’m currently living it.  Not even a month after I write a blog describing how as a child I coerced my mom into adopting a kitten, I find two kittens during a Pack Walk.  I couldn’t just leave them, so I brought them home, segregating them in my son’s bedroom until I could figure out what to do with them.  We found a home for the gray one, and decided to keep the black one. Now comes the tricky part.   How to integrate a small kitten into a pack that contains a dog with high prey drive and a definite desire to “secure the perimeter”:  namely Sparta.

Sparta is not a difficult dog.  She’s sweet, kind, loyal, obedient…all wrapped up in a big ball of protectiveness and questions.  My husband says she reads too much Guns ‘n Ammo, and laughs at how you can almost hear her answer my every command with “Sir, yes Sir!”.  She wasn’t trained to be so…military, it’s just her nature.  There’s a joke about German Shepherds:

Q: How many German Shepherds does it take to change a lightbulb?

So how to add a kitten to this pack?  Slowly, and with a lot of Piloting.  Sparta will be asking many questions along the way, from “What the hell is this thing?” to “Should we kill it?”.  I will be answering all of her questions, one at a time, and not immersing her in a whirlpool of over-stimulation.  In other words, taking it very slowly.

The first thing I did was to rub my hands all over the kitten and then immediately go to where Sparta was and let her smell my hands. If she started to get a little hyper over the new scent, I simply gave her a gentle negative, letting her know that this scent is not to be linked with energy:

Hmmm….interesting scent, Mom.  That’s a new odor.  What do you call it? 

I call it mine, Sparta.

Sir, yes Sir!

Good girl, Sparta. *eye roll*

This step took me about a day.  Meanwhile, the kitten’s scent naturally started to permeate the house, becoming a normal background scent, the same way people living near train tracks eventually don’t notice trains going by any more.  It’s normal now.  This is very important to acclimating your dog to a new pack member (such as say, a kitten, new pet, or a baby). Since dogs answer most of their questions through scent, (similar to how we use our eyes), integrating strange scents as normal is very important.  The first time Sparta meets the kitten (who has now been named Princess Catwalker, Kitty Purry, Pixel), I wanted her to process the scent as something that’s already familiar.

Ever patient Sparta, wondering what on earth I've brought into the house now.

Ever patient Sparta, wondering what on earth I’ve brought into the house now.

Now that Sparta is used to Pixel’s scent, we can move to the next step:  controlled visual acceptance.  We are gradually adding to her senses of Pixel, without allowing sense of taste.  Sight comes next.  We don’t want to put Sparta into sensory overload, so we take it a bit at a time.

I put Sparta in her mudroom and put up a baby gate.  I would walk into the kitchen frequently holding the kitten, giving her a brief visual, but also giving her the cue through my body language that this was mine.  If she asked any questions, I would answer them.

Mom, you’ve got some fur on your clothes…..wait a minute, that’s not fur…  WHAT IS THAT?!!!!

It’s mine, Sparta.  That’s what it is.

Sir, yes Sir!

The more causal I was about a kitten being in the kitchen, the more Sparta took my attitude as her cue.  She was still very interested, but trying to act calm.  Her calmness was rewarded with a green bean (no, not as punishment – she loves them. No, really).  After about 20 minutes of this, she got bored and decided to take a nap, at which point I walked up to the baby gate, and did a controlled first-meet.  I let her sniff the kitten’s rear end first.  Sparta did some heavy sniffs to get as much info as possible.  As soon as her body language became too stiff or agitated, I would simply give her a negative using my body language, reminding her that this was my kitten, not hers.  She accepted this.  I continued with this behavior for roughly two days, finally allowing occasional front-end sniffs (after realizing the kitten was beyond bored and calm), to allowing a meeting through the baby gate.  Sparta was again rewarded with green beans for calm behavior.  After a bit, she started to look for green beans when the kitten was around.  Sometimes she’d get them, but most of the time it was calm praise and a gentle pat, simply punctuated with a treat occasionally.

Finally, after 4 days, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.  Face to face. I kept Sparta’s leash on her, but didn’t hold it. To accomplish this safely, I started after Sparta had quite a bit of exercise.  We went for a 3 mile walk, which is a lot for Sparta (she’s more of a wrestler than a runner).  She was calm and happily exhausted when we got home – a good way to start what could be a high energy situation.  I sent Sparta to her room, gave her a stay command, but didn’t put up the baby gate this time, relying on her self-control to obey the command in the face of added stimulation (Sir, yes Sir!).  I walked in holding Pixel.  Sparta wasn’t restrained this time, but she didn’t try to leave her room, although she was very interested.  I gave her a green bean for remaining calm.  I then allowed Sparta to come up to me, who was still standing holding the kitten.  She gave a hard sniff and then looked for a green bean, which I gave her.  I walked around with the kitten until Sparta was bored and looked for something else to do.  I then put the kitten on the counter (not behavior I want to encourage, but for the moment, the perfect place for them to meet).  I wanted the kitten to have an easy escape route, and to not feel overwhelmed by the (100lb+) dog.  The kitten needed to be on higher ground.  Sparta sniffed, whined (I gave her a negative), and then continued with some heavy sniffing.  After five minutes, Sparta was bored.

It was still another day before I allowed the kitten to meet Sparta on the ground, but by this point, Sparta was bored, and had already accepted the kitten as Pack.  As you have read, there was a lot of Piloting through this.  I can not decided who belongs in the Pack unless I am Pilot.  I did not start with a dog who does not obey my basic commands, and who I couldn’t Pilot into calm easily.  I applied the basic steps of Piloting:

  1. Control yourself (I was calm, and using confident body language);
  2. Control the situation (I very slowly added the stimulation a bit at a time, controlling each situation);
  3. Answer any questions that arise. (Can I eat that?  No, Sparta, that’s my kitten.  Sir, yes Sir!).

Since integrating the kitten into the Pack, I’ve discovered that kittens are very annoying. Pixel is constantly pestering Orion (who simply snaps and backs the kitten off, teaching Pixel appropriate behaviors under my watchful eye).  Sometimes they play, sometimes they don’t.  My other cat, Echo, tries to be indulgent with the kitten, but yeah, same thing.  It usually ends with Echo smacking Pixel, and Pixel realizing he needs to tone down his behavior. Everyone in the house is Piloting Pixel.

Sparta and Pixel hanging out in Sparta's room

Sparta and Pixel hanging out in Sparta’s room. 

Except Sparta. One time she put her nose a little to rudely into the kitten’s derriere, and Pixel didn’t like it.  He turned around and smacked Sparta.  Sparta is now cowed by Pixel, and gives him plenty of room.  My 100 lb. rottie/shep has been Piloted by a 3 lb kitten.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio