Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A malinois and three kittens walk into a bar

This is long and I apologize but several of you have asked how I “de-toxed” Phoenix to the kittens. This is what worked for us.

Phoenix has the highest prey drive of any dog I’ve ever owned. He’s been this way from the beginning although I didn’t recognize it for what it was until he started jumping the fence at 4 months old to chase our feral farm cats. He was coordinated enough to jump and fast enough to chase but he never caught a cat.

Although the cats always escaped, he later caught and killed rabbits and ground squirrels. He grabbed birds out of mid-air if they swooped within his range. He endlessly pursued squirrels but never got one. He has chased raccoons and made one attempt at chasing a skunk. I managed to thwart both of the latter two varmint-chasing episodes before they got out of hand. If it was small, furred or feathered and scurried, scuttled or slunk, he wanted it.

While I could easily tap into this drive in obedience training, it didn’t turn off when I stopped playing tug or chase games with him. It’s one of those slightly un-nerving qualities that makes Phoenix who he is. I accept it and I respect it, even though it drives me up a wall sometimes. I don’t know if I could have managed it or channeled it better if I’d recognized it earlier but that’s water under the bridge.

The bottom line is, Phoenix is always hunting.

So when I decided to bring some kittens into our farm this spring, I knew I had to do everything I could to ensure their safety around him.

Our farm cat population had dwindled to non-existence over the last several years. I hadn’t mourned their passing. They were feral. I put food and water out for them and that was the extent of our interaction. They were not spayed or neutered or vaccinated. When a feline distemper outbreak swept through the neighborhood, that was pretty much the end of them.

I had one tame cat, a spayed, vaccinated gray tiger stripe cat who hung out in the machine shed and really didn’t do much except eat and purr and get petted. Phoenix pestered her endlessly and she tolerates him with more grace than I would. She is my “antique cat” and the reason she gets along with Phoenix is because she never does anything fast, so she never triggers prey drive.

The years passed. I missed having cats around the place. We had a ridiculous number of mice in our basement over the winter and the Farmer was enthusiastically optimistic that having some outdoor cats would help remedy the situation. That and having a large section of the basement foundation fixed but that’s a story for another time.

The day I brought the kittens home, I put them in a big dog crate in the barn where they were going to live. I brought Phoenix out to see them. To say he went bat shit crazy would not be too far from the truth.

OMGOMGfurrylittlesqueakinganimalsinabox! Letthemout! Letthemoutnow! IWANTTHEM!

The kittens were (and still are) essentially oblivious to his over-threshold behaviors. They sat calmly in their crate, looking adorable and sticking their little paws out to pat the dogs on their noses.

Phoenix immediately tried to bite them.

We spent most of the first week with the kittens safely in the crate, Phoenix on a leash nearby and me sitting on an upturned bucket feeding him voluminous quantities of everything we had in the refrigerator for just being calm and not diving at the crate with his teeth snapping.

Yeah. It was like that.

Phoenix is nobody’s fool. When it became obvious he would not be allowed to “hunt” the kittens, he was willing to trade lunging at the crate for sitting quietly and getting fed bits of chicken, pork chop, tortellini and heaven knows what else. We started at a distance, gradually moving closer and closer to the crate, until he could walk up to the crate without being a crazed idiot.

It was during this initial “Look at the kittens calmly and get food” stage that he backed off on the hunting behavior and simple curiosity took over. Of course, this curiosity often triggered more hunting behavior but ya gotta start somewhere.

Until then, cats had been a mystery to him. They were the forbidden fruit. They ran. He chased. They got away. He got frustrated.

Now he had three cats at his complete disposal. He could watch them. He could sniff them. He could, to an extent, touch them through the wires of the crate. He could get his fill without them disappearing up a tree or into a hay loft where he couldn’t go.

This lasted about a week. I took Phoenix with me every time I went to the barn, two or three times a day, always armed with a ton of food. Phoenix was always on leash. If he escalated to “hunt mode” when we entered the barn, we turned around and went out again. The only way he got to see the kittens was if he was calm.

The kittens were living in their crate most of the time, since they were small and relatively stupid about things. I wanted them to imprint on the barn as home before turning them loose. By the end of the first week, Phoenix could handle the kittens rushing the crate door when they saw us without it triggering a tooth-snapping lunge in return. The immediate novelty had worn off but they were still highly desirable.

The next step was kittens loose in the x-pen, with Phoenix on the outside of the x-pen. This worked great until the first kitten discovered he could fit between the x-pen wires and made a great escape, right across Phoenix’ paws. (I swore they were too big to scoot through the openings but guess not.) The element of surprise was in the kitten’s favor. I got a leash on Phoenix and we basically reverted to square one. Kittens in a crate had become ho-hum. Kittens on the hoof, so to speak, were extremely “huntable.”

Loaded with more food, we spent the next few weeks allowing the kittens to run amuck while Phoenix was leashed or in the x-pen, being fed for just being calm amidst their antics. Fortunately, he also has a high food drive and was willing to ignore the kittens for sake of meatballs, summer sausage, mashed potatoes and hamburgers. My refrigerator had never been so clean.

The kittens themselves played an important part in ensuring their safety around the dogs. They are not afraid of the dogs so beyond being small and furry, they did not exhibit a lot of furtive, slinky, prey-animal behaviors. In fact, when let out of their crate in the morning, the first thing they do was rush the x-pen to greet the dogs. Jamie is delighted by this - he loves kittens. With Phoenix firmly leashed, I tossed handfuls of food behind him to keep him from escalating on the kittens patting his nose and rubbing against the wires.

By the end of the third week, we had progressed to him to doing sits and downs in the barn with the kittens running around. This called two skill sets into play: 1) must not hunt/chase/eat the kittens and 2) must hold the stay without wiggling, shifting or crawling in kitten pursuit. By now, there was nothing left in our refrigerator except a jar of mayonnaise and some shriveled up carrots.

Once Phoenix mastered the dual pressure of stays/don’t eat the cats, I started turning him loose, dragging a leash for easy capture, to interact with the kittens. We did this for very short increments of time, building on success and always ending before things got out of hand.

By now he could go out to the barn off leash and approach the kittens, either loose or in their crate, with relative calm. Since the kittens ran TOWARD him instead of AWAY from him, I think that squashed some of his prey drive. What do you when you really want to chase something and it runs AT you?

The test of his understanding of acceptable behavior came one evening when we went out to the barn and the kittens, after nearly a month, had decided to venture beyond the barn doors. They were pouncing around in the grass in front of the barn, an environment where Phoenix had never encountered them. He immediately targeted on movement and went racing toward them in full “target lock” mode. I yelled, he skidded to a stop and gave them a “Oh. It’s just you guys” look.

That’s kind of where we are today. In spite of his tremendous progress, I don’t trust him loose around them yet without supervision. The kittens are expanding their territory and showing up unannounced in odd places. Phoenix is becoming accustomed to finding cats on the patio table or under the broad jump and no longer flies into hot pursuit. Siren, Gryphon and Weezel are proving to be helpful training buddies and after some initial bobbles, Phoenix is showing tremendous concentration at ignoring them and staying engaged with me.

Who’d have thunk it?


  1. Very impressive! This is a great post and what excellent training. Way to go, Phoenix!

  2. Phoenix, Juno is becoming more and more disappointed each day. She would like to offer to re-train you and desensatize you to kitten niceness... Where is the justice in this world?

    BTW: I think I could totally train this in juno for only MY cat if I had a cat. And it would take me YEARS before I left them alone in the house. But I'm not sure I could train it in any old cat. She and Phoenix could be so Bonny and Clyde...