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Canine Behavior/introducing new kitten to existing dogs


We own a 3yr old sheltie and a 2ish yr old shepherd/beagle mix. The sheltie we've had since he was a puppy, but the mix, we adopted her from the shelter a year ago. Her name is Emma. She is a wonderful dog, great with our kids (8 & 2), great with us and our other dog. We have never had any behavior issues with Emma.

We brought home a kitten Thursday afternoon (we're on day 3). The dogs were in their cages when we got home and I left them there for a while so the kitten could get acclimated.  The entire time, Emma was making this horrible whiney noise from her cage. I thought she was just over excited so I let the dogs outside so she could run off some of her energy. No way was I going to let her loose in the house house with the new kitten. I was afraid of what she'd do. She was acting crazy.

I have not let them loose together as of yet. We have a kennel for the kitten, as well as the dog, and we rotate who is in it and who is out. My sheltie has been out the whole time because he really couldn't care less. But, I have had them in the room together, Emma on a leash. When she is on her leash, my husband holds it, and I will bring the kitten to Emma. I allow Emma to sniff her, if she will, and the cat doesn't care at all. Emma usually gets real stiff and gets this weird look in her eye. This morning, she actually started sniffing her then out of nowhere, she nipped. It sounds very similar to what this poster wrote: When we hold a kitten near the dog, she instantly starts... making a chomping/biting like motion, repeatedly and continuously, ah... nipping? I'm not sure how to describe it, only that my wife suggested at first that maybe it's like how they'll groom themselves, that biting motion. She keeps trying to lick the kitten, but also jumped up and tried to 'bite', and we're not sure what she's trying to do., only that she wags her tail the entire time and we can't seem to distract her.

When we would put the kitten up to Emma's cage in the beginning, she did this exact same thing. Today, she made contact. But it was gentle. She didn't seem to want to hurt the kitten, and the kitten wasn't phased at all. I'm not sure what to do. I still have them separated. And we are making progress. When I first put the kitten in the kennel, Emma wouldn't leave it. She was fixated on it and not even a treat would distract her. That was yesterday. But now, as I type this, she is curled up next to me on the couch asleep and the kitten is in her kennel asleep four feet away.

Will time do the trick? Or do I have a serious issue on my hands? Aggression? Help!

This is a difficult question for me to answer from this distance.  This all amounts to prey drive in the dog AND the kitten's acquired response.  If the kitten becomes fearful, it will run; if the kitten runs, the prey drive in the dog will increase.  You will then have a bigger mess on your hands.

Leashing Emma and actually holding the leash is a problem for me; the dog understands restraint and it is actually more likely to increase her anxiety and even enhance her prey drive.  Confining the kitten while Emma is behaving in a way that the kitten might determine is predatory is also a problem.  Normally, if a kitten shows (and has) no fear of dogs (i.e., it is young enough and has not learned from observation of other cats that dogs "chase"), that nonchalance alone can mean an enormous difference to any dog(s) in the household.  I have brought kittens into a house FULL of dogs with no problem.  I have also had an extremely dog friendly cat who had no fear and just once had an incident with a boarding dog where the dog went after the cat (intending to kill it).  The nicest dog is capable of high prey drive and doing damage.  I also had a rescue Collie in my home who was FINE with my two cats but who proved to be a cat killer in her first new home!  

I think the progress you're making is a good sign.  The teeth chattering you describe is a nervous reaction (the product of high adrenaline, fight/flight) and Emma actually might be afraid of this kitten (an unknown creature to her) from the description of her wall-eyed frozen posture you gave.  If she is routinely praised and even food rewarded (tiny tidbit) each time she CALMLY accepts the kitten's presence, and each time the kitten approaches her (providing Emma's body language shows she is RELAXED, not nervous, not overly excited), she will soon lose her fear and habituate to the kitten's presence.  This does not mean she will be ok with other cats/kittens.  Leave the leash (house tab: lightweight leash with handle cut off) on Emma so you can step on it to stop her should she suddenly bolt after the kitten or suddenly lunge in a menacing way.  A few times a day, have a "party" when they are in the room together: for a few moments, laugh, clap your hands, sing a song.  This will relieve your tension and help Emma to experience the kitten as rewarding.

Btw, a wagging tail is not an indication of anything, one must take the dog's fully body language into account (ear set, tail set, speed of wag, flash of eyes, hackles, etc.)  A dog in full attack mode will wag its tail.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

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Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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