I have been working on an online course from the Karen Pryor Academy which has been really challenging and fun. I truly love learning about dog training, and luckily Gracie is a willing participant! One of the most useful things in the last while was a way of problem-solving that just clicked with me (no pun intended for the clicker-trainers in the audience.) The homework was to use the strategy to solve some problem with your dog’s behavior, so Gracie’s awful habit of chasing the cats around at mealtime became my project. (You can ignore all of this is you’re not interested in dog training, but I will say that it works with other animals and even people!)

You establish four things first. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? What are the opportunities for the dog to practice the behavior you’re trying to fix? What are the cues or triggers that get everything going? And what is reinforcing the behavior?

So, for example, the problem I want to solve is Gracie chasing after two of our cats while we prepare dinner. The opportunity is that Gracie and the cats are both free in the house. The cues (triggers) are that dinner prep starts and the cats wander into the kitchen. And the reinforcement is easy – chasing cats is really fun, and dinner gets served after. You can’t blame Gracie for chasing the cats – she’s having a blast and it is immensely rewarding (for Gracie, not the cats!).

So, take your four questions again, but change the first one to: What behavior do you want to see? I want Gracie to settle on her mat and stay there while we prepare dinner, even if the cats are hanging around her.

I know that’s a lot to ask, but she’s a smart dog, and she already knows how to settle on a mat. In dog training, there are also the 3 Ds – distance, duration, and distraction that we work on. And Gracie can do her mat at a small distance – but in our small kitchen, distance isn’t an issue. I also know that she can settle on her mat for several minutes when asked, which takes care of the duration issue. But that third D – distraction – that’s a biggie here. Cats are a HUGE distraction.

I started the training by reminding her about her mat skills, and went around getting stuff out of the fridge, getting plates and bowls out, getting kibble out of the bins while she rested on her mat. Getting the kibble out was too big a distraction the first time around but she had it down pretty quickly. We basically worked on all the distractions of dinner prep except the cats…which are kinda hard to schedule and orchestrate. (They are cats, after all.)

Then we were ready to put it all together in real time. The behavior I want is for Gracie to settle on her mat while dinner is prepared. The opportunities don’t really change – everyone is still free in the house. But the cues change – Gracie gets cued (asked) to lie down on her mat and stay until released. She is reinforced for that by a click and treat, lots of praise, and dinner.

It was touch and go the first evening. She was up at least three times because I provided too little supervision that first evening. The next time I asked Marley to do all the food prep while I kept an eye on Gracie and reminded her to stay every now and then and she did better. We are now to the place where I can have my back turned and be doing some dinner prep with Marley, but when he starts taking food to the various cat stations I am still keeping an eye on Gracie, but she’s getting the idea. In no time she will be able to ignore the cats and hold her place on the mat until released. The cats seem to think this is all a big improvement. <g>

That’s probably more than you want to know about dog training, but if you look at the model it works for people and other animals as well. There has been so much in this course that has been worthwhile but this model was a real gem for me; I’m sure I will find tons of ways to use it over the years. Recognizing that “bad” behaviors are strongly reinforced and that’s part of the reason they continue, and looking for solutions (besides nagging) and reinforcers that will bring about a different behavior…game changer in my mind.

And a quick thank you to all of you for your kind words about Leelu. We are still feeling a bit heartbroken, but we look forward to fostering another dog after we’ve had a little time to grieve. There are lots of dogs out there that need a kind place to land, and we hope to be one of those places in the not too distant future. And I hope that the certified behaviorist who was helping us with Leelu doesn’t mind me posting this here, but her note to me this evening included the following. “Dogs come into our lives, we love them, flaws and all, and grieve their loss when they are gone. They all teach us something, they all leave their mark, and I think every dog in your life will likely benefit from the fact that you had Leelu because of what you learned helping her. That is part of her legacy, a benefit for all future dogs you foster, rescue, and work with.” I would be very glad if this is so.

15 thoughts on “Gracie Chronicles: On Learning to Leave the Cats Alone

  1. Loved the message. It’s so true but we forget that we build on our skills from experience and Leelu provided you with one helluva experience! I marvel at the training you can do with dogs. I’ve met so many “untrained” dogs in my time and their owners say they are just like that. Just like kids or anything else it takes time, patience and a will to do it right.

    1. Dog training isn’t rocket science. You’re right that it just takes time, patience, the will to do it and some consistency as well, and voila!

  2. I love the “homework” assignment! And I have a feeling that the cats appreciate the effort you’re putting into it as well. If nothing else, it makes for a quieter meal prep time.

    And I love the message – so very thoughtful and true! Leelu taught you a great deal and all your dogs – current and future – will benefit from those lessons in one way or another. A wonderful legacy for any dog. ❤️🐾❤️

    1. And a quieter meal prep time is welcome for all!! And yes, a good legacy for sweet Leelu. We miss her.

      1. I’m sure you do miss that sweet girl! I feel your heartache. Each of our dog angels taught us things that only dogs can teach us. But our special- needs pups? Well, I can’t describe the depth of appreciation I feel for the folks who are willing to take on the often stressful tasks of caring for, helping, and loving them. And giving them a home in which they can start to feel safe. Your Leelu and our Radar were wonderful teachers, each in her/his own way. Having to make that final decision for them was devastating, but the most loving, selfless one we could make. And they are looking down on us from the Rainbow Bridge and wagging their tails in thanks for all we gave them while they were blessing our lives with their presence. ❤️🐾

      2. Radar and Leelu were good teachers, and perhaps they are together over the Bridge comparing notes on us!

  3. What a lovely note of comfort from your behaviorist. What you are able to accomplish with Gracie is most inspiring. Well done. I think Elsa would view cats as domestic squirrels and no amount of training would train out her prey drive on those critters. Luckily she’s patient and waits outside the kitchen while I prepare meals for her and Norman; he watches with keen interest for every single step and spoonful. He makes for a large sous chef in a tiny space. 😆

    1. Gracie is so easy to train for the most part, the cats being the only real challenge with her. I’m pretty sure she agrees with Elsa that they are just big rodents and fair game!

  4. Sound advice and helpful training cues. Sometimes I think I’m a flawed pet parent, but you show that most behavior can be amended. Hope for the clueless!

    1. There is hope for all of us, Eliza! I’ve let Gracie chase cats for two years, so I have my work cut out for me, but it is never too late!

    1. Cats do well with clicker training in my limited experience. I haven’t done a lot of work with training them, but they have responded well to my minimal efforts in the past.

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