It’s been a fairly quiet week for Moomkin, after finally arriving here in England. There have been some expected challenges to integrating a new dog into the established “pack” here at home. While Moomkin is all about playing with his new family, my dogs are more reserved, and haven’t quite decided what they think of the new kid. So far, I’ve been letting the dynamics play at with as little interference as possible; things settle down faster if you let them all work things out for themselves. We’ve had some breakthrough moments where Moomkin has broken through their reserves and convinced them into some much needed playtime, so things look pretty promising.
Moomkin has also displayed an unusual fascination with our three cats, who are considerably less then thrilled with the situation. We had no doubt that it would take a great deal of time, patience, and training to integrate Moomkin into a family with cats. He’s not a puppy, and the breed isn’t known to be particularly cat friendly. Moreover, my cats are comfortable in the house (they are the real bosses around here!) and thus don’t necessarily observe the typical rules of dog-cat interaction. The result has been some overly enthusiastic greetings by Moomkin, immediately followed by spitting, hissing, and some mighty sharp claws. At the moment, both parties seem to have retreated to opposite sides of the baby gate, and a tentative peace has settled.
However, Moomkin still wakes up every morning, bounds downstairs, launches himself onto the couch, and investigates every nook and cranny of the cat trees in hopes one of them has become unusually brave. This series of events is repeated numerous times throughout the day, as he regularly interrupts whatever else he is doing (be it sleeping, playing, or chewing on a toy), to return to the couch and those cat trees, certain that eventually, something to eat will emerge.
Today, we started his cat-training in ernest. As a part of his general training since he arrived, Moomkin has received every meal last of the dogs (establishing patience and self-control), and has eaten his meals in front of the cat room. The cats are then fed while he eats, encouraging them to come out of hiding. The idea is that Moomkin is able to view the cats, while being rewarded (the meal) for ignoring their movements. So far, things seem to be going well. Today we took Moomkin into the cat room (leashed), armed with hotdogs and with Olivia on stand-by to rescue any cats in crisis. Moomkin, who is notoriously un-food motivated and picky about his treats, was enthralled with the hotdogs.
For those interested in the actual way we work this behavior: we start by opening the baby gate and allowing Moomkin to examine the room. The moment he returns his attention to me, I reward him with a treat and a “Good boy” (can also use “Nice”, “Yes”, or a clicker to mark this). Slowly, while continuously rewarding every moment his attention is on me instead of the cats, we make our way into the room. The leash is loose enough to allow him the freedom to move around, but tight enough to ensure he can’t actually make contact with the cats. Ultimately, what we are looking for is for Moomkin to pay attention solely to me, regardless of where the cats are, what they are doing, what else smells good in the new room, etc. The point is that I am far more interesting and yummy tasting then those crazy cats!
We had surprising success with this first lesson, considering his general attitude during the week. He was able to walk around the entire room, on a loose leash, without once charging any of the three cats hissing angrily at him. Moreover, we were able to place a hotdog in front of one of the cats, and Moomkin gently retrieved the treat without showing the slightest bit of interest in the cat, a huge step towards a sustainable cat-dog peace! We ended the training on that note, after perhaps five minutes in the room. Tomorrow, we will repeat the exercise, and again the next day, and the next, until Moomkin associates the cat room with me and treats rather than with potential prey. Eventually, the cats will get tired of their hideaways and come seeking their rightful rule of the house. When that time comes, we will start again at the beginning, leashing Moomkin and rewarding every instance when he chooses to ignore a cat in favor of connecting with me. One day, cats will just be another part of the fabric of the house, perhaps worth cuddling with, but certainly not worth eating.
For those wondering on the expected time frame for this miraculous day, we estimate anywhere from three to six months. If you are doing it right, training dogs takes time and patience; but the reliability you can count on later is worth it. Moreover, this exercise in self-control will be applicable to every other situation Moomkin finds himself in that scares or excites him. Whether its crazy kids on scooters (he is NOT a fan), men in ball caps, or deer in the woods, Moomkin is learning foundational skills that will effect every aspect of his Service Dog training.