Socializing Cats and Dogs
Lessons for Getting Pets to Mix and Mingle
Does your cat spend so much time under the bed you forgot what she looks like? Or do you have a skittish dog whose tail is constantly stuck between his legs?
As people become more aware of how their pets are feeling they want to make them as happy as possible. We’re more accepting of therapy in general as a population. Through socialization classes our furry companions can get the tools they need to help decrease anxiety and keep their cool around people and other pets.
First, we asked an animal behavior expert what owners can do at home to create a more relaxed environment for their pets.
What’s So Scary?
Animals react differently when they are frightened. Some bite or growl. Others hide or shake and shiver. But why, even with all the love we give them, do they act this way?
“It’s important to realize that a lot of social behavior is caused by genetics,” says Dr. Sarah Correll of Happy Pet Therapy in Boise, Idaho. “Cats can inherit their shyness or outgoing nature from their fathers while dogs’ personalities usually depend on their breed,” she says.
Happy Kitten = Happy Cat
The early stages of kitten hood are critical for coaxing cats into being social creatures, says Correll. Around 3 to 12 weeks old, they should be handled for about 40 minutes a day to help them relax.
Kittens are much more fearless at this stage so use this opportunity to frequently introduce them to different things, people, pets and experiences. Each of these interactions with different people and in different places should feel happy and safe.
“Kids, without knowing it, can be scary,” says Correll. “They may talk loudly or move suddenly or play too aggressive and rough.”
A good tip: Use cat toys when playing (avoiding hands and feet) and watch the cat’s posture for signs of anxiety.
Can You Teach An Old Cat New Tricks?
As rambunctious kittens grow into cats, they become increasingly difficult to socialize. Provide cats with a hiding place (a perch such as a cat condo or other vertical space) where they can safely observe while there is a new child or dog in the space. (If they refuse to even leave the safe confines from under the bed, try coaxing them out with tuna or small bites of chicken).
Cat Tips from Dr. Sarah Correll:
- Reward them when they act normal (i.e. when they are playful or come out to eat).
- Ignore fearful behaviors as much as possible.
- Don’t reinforce fearful behaviors by saying “It’s OK.”
- Try using a relaxing diffuser such as Feliway (available at pet stores).
- If the cat is always hiding and can’t be touched, talk to your vet about prescribing anti-anxiety medication to speed up the socialization process.
Don’t reinforce fearful behaviors by saying “It’s OK.”
Dogs were selected as companions by people for their tendency to be kind and friendly. They’ve been domesticated for a longer period of time than cats so their social abilities are much more developed, says Correll.
Still, puppies can benefit from interacting with other pets, people and things while they are young. Socialization classes can teach puppies manners, such as how to share toys, food bow and play with other dogs. Some classes may focus on the etiquette of walking correctly on a leash and not jumping on you or visitors.
If you have a particularly shy or nervous pet, you can encourage social behaviors by slowly exposing them to new people or animals by having them sit for treats through desensitization:
- Expose them to something new
- Offer treats
- Try to encourage positive emotional responses
Dogs in a chronic state of fearfulness might need more structure in the household, says Correll. For every movement (mealtime, going outside) have the dog sit first. This will help add structure. Adding organization to a dog’s routine can decrease anxiety and help keep him calm.
A good tip: Some dogs like to have an open crate available where they can escape from commotion (a crate — a “den” for a dog — is meant to be a safe place, not a place for punishment).
You can locate a socialization class through your veterinarian or some of these animal behavioral sites:
- Dr. Sarah Correll at Happy Pet Therapy
- Animal Behavior Resources Institute, Inc.
- Association of Companion Animal Behavioral Counselors
- Directory of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists from the Animal Behavioral Society
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers
No matter what form of training or socialization you choose for your pet, Correll says it should be in a safe and happy environment for your pet. Make sure behaviorists and trainers use positive reinforcement techniques and nothing scary or harmful such as choke chains.
If you liked this story, read more about dog training.