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Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Big cat problem

Can you help please? We are the proud owners of a beautiful rescued GSD-collie cross bitch, Kira, who is about 18 months old and we have had her six months.

When she came to us she hadn’t been very well socialised, and after a lot of ground work she is now a dream to own. She loves everybody; the more dogs she meets to play with the better, and she comes back as soon as we call her. The problem is cats.

Our daily walk to the park becomes a nightmare if she sees one. At the moment she is on a Halti but if she sees a cat she tries to get out of it to chase the cat. I’ve owned three other GSDs before her and have competed in obedience and working trials with them, and I am now at my wits’ end. Please help!

Babs Sanderson, Stockport, Cheshire

Karen Wild, behaviourist, advises...

Hi Babs,

Well done so far on your efforts, I congratulate you as it sounds like you have already worked hard.

Chasing cats can be such a difficult issue mainly because the cats themselves are hard to control, and the dogs can smell them out and spot the movement (as they then run away fast!) long before we even notice what is happening.  It is a powerful predatory instinct and this is probably why you’ve found it harder to control as you are clearly an experienced trainer.

As you have already taught some basic control exercises, it is time to extend these to be part of a new skill. You have your toolkit – so let’s make it work for this problem. You have several options, and I would work on one at a time. Firstly, I would look for something that you can make into a cat ‘stooge’. This can be a cardboard silhouette or cuddly cat toy. Basically we are breaking down the task into easy to handle stages, so you would start somewhere quiet and enclosed so you are not fearing her escaping from the Halti. Have the ‘cat’ placed a good distance away. This might need to be 100 yards away! Then, practise your sit stays and recalls just as you would normally do, and expect your GSD to concentrate on you as she would normally in this exercise. You might have to play around with distance from the ‘cat’ to find out what the basic ‘dog does not react’ distance is. Remember that the stooge cat does not smell like a cat, nor does it move like a cat. Nevertheless you have to start somewhere!

You will find that as you get a little closer, your dog will start to look like she is about to chase. Don’t wait for a full blown chase. You know your dog’s reactions, so immediately call her away and put her in a sit stay. Then, reward her well as she is likely to become very frustrated otherwise! If you are using a toy to reward her, make certain you throw it in the other direction AWAY from the stooge. Chasing her toy needs to become far more exciting than trying to chase the cat!

It is hard to describe this whole process in detail here but what you will end up with is a dog that will be able to sit closer and closer to the ‘stooge’ cat, and to turn away from it back to you for a game. You can gradually extend this by placing the stooge cat somewhere on your normal walk (again where you know it is going to be, but your dog does not!) and working along the difficulty gradient once again.

I realise that using a real cat is going to be tricky – and unethical – but the control work will give you a really useful foundation. You can also work on calling her away from a toy you have thrown. It will teach your dog that no matter what she sees, if you call her back, it is not a chase object and is not something to get frustrated about either (because you have kept the training sessions fun and rewarding all the way along!)

An excellent book that describes similar training in detail is ‘STOP!’ by David Ryan -  I recommend this, not only because it is a great book, but you sound like the sort of person that really cares and will put in the effort to help your lovely dog.


  1. This is a very dificult problem I had 2 dogs, brought up with cats, but all others were fair game to chase. Ok if they stood their ground. I was just reading about a GSD who failed last training for guide dog for blind working because they could not stop her chasing cats. If they couldn't do it, you have a job on your hands. I think you will need specialist help with this. Sorry this appears a bit defeatist but sometimes problems are not solveable.

  2. Have you trained her to "leave it"? If so, simply cue her to "leave it" when she spots a cat, and reward her once you've walked a few steps away from it.

    If you haven't trained a "leave it" cue yet, check out this video from Emily Larlham (Kikopup) on YouTube

    If you do need to train it, or if you've only trained it at home, you will obviously need to work up to the level of distraction that cats provide, and provide a reward worthwhile of earning for leaving the cat.

    If you do need to work up to that level of distraction before your dog can leave cats, it might be wise to look into getting a double-ended lead so that you can clip one end onto the Halti and the othher onto your dogs' collar (or better yet, a harness) to ensure her safety should she manage to wriggle out of her headcollar.