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How To Add A New Pet To Your Pack Safely

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

- Sandra Bullock

A few years ago, during a pack walk, nonetheless, I found two tiny kittens in the woods.  I couldn’t just leave them there, 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 light bulb?

That would be my Sparta for certain.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 Sparta to process the scent as something that’s already familiar.

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!

You do you, Sparta

The more causal I was about a kitten being in the kitchen, the more Sparta took my attitude as her cue on how to react to the situation.  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, Sparta 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 the negative.  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, merely letting her drag it around.

To accomplish the meet safely, I started after Sparta had quite a bit of exercise, setting her up for success.  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 timeI 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 treats 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. Sparta sniffed, whined (I gave her a gentle negative to her increased energy), and then she continued with some more heavy sniffing of the kitten. 

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, or at least Not A Threat. 

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 calmness 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);

I then proceeded to answer any questions that Sparta had.

(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.

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 on the nose.  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.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs LLC Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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