Dog Quest: The Price of Complacency

Edit: spoiler alert here – no-one has died. Everyone is going to be okay (more or less).

Most of the time, when I write about my dogs or my pets, there’s a certain amount of humour involved.

That’s not going to happen this time. This is a pretty hard post to write.

Husband and I have had a pretty emotional, devastating week, and while it’s starting to let up, it looks like it might be a bit demanding for the next little while. First I will tell the story of what happened, and then I will finish with some important take home points about how and whether this could have been prevented, what we as dog owners have learned from this, what action we will take in future, and what people reading this story need to keep in mind if it is going to inform any of their future behaviours.

So here goes.

We have two dogs, and two cats. We raised Amos from puppyhood. Although he does get excitable when we have company, he is for the most part a very laid back dog. He has a resource guarding issue with high value items, but we continue to work on that and it continues to improve. He’s a bit of a goofball, but he is very solid and clever and calm. To my assessment he has a core of emotional stability and confidence that makes his behaviour relatively predictable (for a dog). He has almost no prey drive relative to your average rottweiler.

We adopted Abby as a rescue, when she was about nine or ten months old, with a murky past. While initially our problems stemmed from her weeing inside and trying to play with Amos when he didn’t want to play, for the most part we’ve found that she is anxious and reactive, very eager to please, highly food driven to the point where we are still struggling to teach her not to raid the bin, since she has in the past been starved. She often seems to feel threatened by other dogs or want to play with them, depending on whether she is on lead or whether she decides they have crossed some line that neither we nor the kennel owners could figure out. She’s a bit scared of big guys, but she gets past it and attaches herself to them like a barnacle.

She loves people. She is postcard gentle with children and babies (although she does try to nibble-groom children; that was over a year ago though, and since then we have trained her out of nibble-grooming people. Note that this is a nurturing, not aggressive, canine behaviour). She is extremely affectionate and playful.

She has an extremely high prey drive. This is a dog that is made of elbows and knees and flaps around in an intensely uncoordinated matter and then moves like oiled lightning when she sees ducks.

Amos has always treated the cats as though they are small, slightly unfriendly dogs. By this I mean: he sniffs their butts (or tries to); he play-bows at them; he tries to get closer but backs off when they give their warning meows (this is only for Jabba, though; Lestat would not be anywhere near where he could even see a dog, although he did get his butt sniffed when Amos was a small puppy). Before we got Abby, Amos and Jabba were reaching an understanding where they could safely be in the same room.

By contrast, Abby did not even seem to really notice the cats for the first two weeks, in keeping with what her foster carer said (she was fostered with cats and other dogs).

When she did notice them, her interest was much more “target acquired” than “small unfriendly dog I need to make friends with.” So we continued to keep them separate, as it quickly became clear that Abby and the cats would not be friends or be safe.

I wasn’t entirely sure she would be dangerous to them – she managed to roll Lestat over once or twice before I got her away, and mostly she sniffed at him, and in this case I probably saw what I wanted to see. It helps that Lestat is basically a lump of a cat and doesn’t move much; even when he flails angrily he is quite slow, so probably he doesn’t set off the prey drive as much.

Our approach was to keep them separate, because while I wasn’t sure what she would do – and thought that possibly she was just curious – I didn’t feel anywhere near the level of confidence that would let me risk the safety of the cats. We kept them separate with a baby gate, which had bars wide enough for the cats to get through if they wanted to explore the rest of the house when the dogs were outside.

The problem is that the cats don’t always know when the dogs are outside. When they’re napping on couches in the lounge room, that seems pretty safe, so this Sunday just gone, Jabba wandered off to visit Husband in his study – on the dog side of the gate – and Abby woke up.

And caught him.

Amos expressed interest in the proceedings (sniffing and pushing forward, ears up), but didn’t join in (no biting or lunging). When Husband pulled him away from the fray (because if muscle dog joined in, things would go even more to shit than they were – Amos and Abby are about the same size, but Amos is a lot stronger), he was agitated, but held his position.

So I stuck my hand in Abby’s mouth and pried her jaws apart, while getting clawed by a panicking shocky cat. Every time I had Abby’s mouth open and Jabba was free, she’d lunge forward to get him again. And every time I stuck my hand back in Abby’s mouth, she let go.

In the end I had to wrestle her to the floor and get my legs around her to hold her still. She wriggled, and kept trying, but at no point did she express any aggression towards me (this is important). It was up to Husband to get Amos outside and then to get Jabba in the bedroom, because if I let her go for a moment, she would go back to her prey.

Which just happened to be my cat. I fucking adore that cat. I get frustrated because he wakes me up at least twice a night clawing the laundry basket or wanting to burrow under the covers; and just that very day I’d gotten really distressed because he had pee’d on a pile of clean, dry laundry (two loads worth), and I am very stressed at the moment and any extra problem does my head in. But I do really love this cat.

This is the thing we have to understand: to Abby, Jabba is basically a squeaky toy. Abby bites and chews and destroys and shakes toys. This is in her nature. This is what she does. She has a high prey drive. She is almost a gun dog in a rottweiler body. This is, actually, why we specifically wanted to adopt a cat-friendly dog and this is why I am frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a good way to road test this apart from long-term foster care where the dog has daily contact with cats – and that requires a shitload of resources that most animal rescue groups simply don’t have.

So Abby got roared at, and put outside. She cringed, and had her tail between her legs.

And I managed to gently tug Jabba out from under the bed (knowing what I know now about his condition, this makes me wince, but I can’t think how else I would have got him out), and push him into his carrier, sobbing and desperately apologising as I watched his front legs collapse under his weight when he tried to crawl forward, while Husband called 24 hours Animal Emergency Care.

We drove down there with my hand stuck in the carrier, monitoring Jabba’s breathing. He was taking giant breaths. He was obviously in a great deal of pain.

(spoiler: he will be okay)

And the whole time, we’re trying to work out – are we going to need to rehome Abby? She did what many dogs do, but are we going to be able to deal with this emotionally?

And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, my poor little cat…” Because at this point we think he isn’t going to make it. Husband asks me a few times on the drive if Jabba is still breathing – he is. And we’re picturing a broken spine, or massive internal injuries and bleeding, crushed organs…

We got lucky. Really, really lucky. According to the vets at AEC (who dealt with the situation really well – compassion and expertise while being professional enough that it wouldn’t just make me cry), the big breaths and difficulty oxygenating was probably due to shock. No lung damage, although there might be some bruising there by now. The thing that was terrifying us was his inability to put weight on his front legs. They weren’t broken, and he could move them, but they wouldn’t hold his weight and we were concerned about permanent nerve damage (which could lead to him being euthanized).

It turned out this was just due to swelling. He can move around on his legs well enough, although he is not steady on his feet yet.

His only long-term problem (apart from just being traumatised by the event) is that he has a fractured and dislocated sternum. Apparently this heals up pretty well in cats so he will most likely be fine, although he may not ever be as spry as he once was.

Meanwhile, Abby became completely emotionally withdrawn after the incident – curling up in a ball in the couch, not wanting to play, not wanting to interact, all things that are very out of character for her – and that’s most likely because we withdrew emotionally from her. For the first 14 hours, there was no patting, no playing, no affection – and that’s a very stark difference. We are normally very affectionate with our dogs. Constant pats, talking, playing. There’s a constant reinforcement going on, but suddenly it was absent, and she could tell. Meanwhile, she was starting to take out her frustration on Amos in surprisingly nasty ways – her tendency to bully him has amped up more in the last couple of months (more on that below), but this was extreme. Amos, meanwhile, was getting clingy and needy from all the tension in the house.

So that is what happened. What are the things we need to consider in future?

Jabba himself

For the next little while, he won’t be able to move around much, so we have time to figure out how we’re going to increase our pet security. At the moment there is space between the bars for the cats to get through the baby gate, so we’re going to have to block that off. We’re also going to put up a curtain in the corridor to block line of sight – that way Abby won’t see cats and fixate on them, and the cats will be more comfortable crossing the corridor to get to the litter tray in the bathroom. Over time I am hoping this will make our feline residents feel more secure and happy. They are both well past middle age and into elderly and it’s very important for their long term health that they feel safe.

Right now he is curled up under my computer, occasionally purring when I pet him.

Abby

I know when I’m well out of my depth; I called our trainer (who is actually a behaviourist). Here were the key points she emphasised:

Firstly, we got complacent because Amos is a much more laid back couch potato sort of dog, and that makes a certain kind of sense; but in the case of dogs like Abby with high prey drive, you can’t afford to be complacent. They want to hunt, and that’s what they’ll do. Anything small and fluffy and vaguely rabbit shaped is a potential target, especially if it scampers or races around.

Could we get that prey drive down? Theoretically, yes, but it would be a massive job, and probably for professional dog trainers – we won’t have the time to invest in that project. Separation and prevention is a much better approach long-term.

Also, we need to heighten the security there, because now Abby has learned that shaking cats is fun, even if she got punished for it. In the meantime, this is now ancient history for her – over and done with – so we need to get back to normal now as much as we can, emotionally speaking. This is difficult, I’m having some conflicting feelings, but we’re trying.

She is not a bad dog, or a dangerous dog (I’ll emphasise this more later).

Secondly, her long-term frustration is probably because she has no outlet for her high energy. Husband and I have both been either sick or away for most of the last two months and so there hasn’t been anywhere near as much walking or playing or training with the dogs. I am thinking that as soon as my broken toe has healed up and I can run again, I am going to start teaching Abby to jog intervals with me.

In the meantime, as a failsafe, we need to work hard on her “crate” command, to the point where no matter what the distraction, she’ll go to her crate when commanded. This is going to be challenging, because while she is super good at going to her crate at dinner time, she mostly responds to hand signals – and I need her to respond to the verbal command even when she can’t see me. A year and a half in, and she is still not entirely clear on verbal commands, no matter how consistent I am with tone and enunciation. She is just now starting to get that there’s a different between “sit” and “drop”, even though she is very solid on the hand signals. It’s very common for dogs to respond to body language and hand signals before anything else, and I think that her base level of anxiety makes it a bit harder for her to concentrate and learn to pay attention to verbal commands.

Where did we go wrong? Well, we weren’t quite as clear on separation as we should have been. Our emphasis was always on making sure the cats had a safe place to run to that was just theirs, not necessarily on keeping them 100% separate, and that was a huge mistake on our part, and Jabba nearly paid for that mistake with his life. We got complacent. We got confident. We assumed Jabba would always be able to scamper off miles ahead of any dog approaching. We even assumed that Abby might not try to kill him, that she might just be curious (although as I said, I didn’t hold this view with intense confidence).

I’m aware that I fucked up, and that Jabba deserved better than this from me.

Finally: really. She is not a bad dog. She is not an unsafe dog, or a scary dog. Unless you are a cat (or a possum, or a rabbit, etc.), you are safe with her. She is, and remains, a good dog with children, although the usual caveats apply (never leave a dog unattended with a child).

The reason I emphasise the above is because anywhere you go on the internet with these sorts of questions, if you see a discussion where a dog has killed a cat, you will immediately get people gasping about what a dangerous dog it is, and what if it was a child?

And look, if you actually don’t know much about dogs, I can see where that anxiety comes from.

But humans, even human children, aren’t prey animals. They just aren’t. There’s no “the dog has taste for blood.” It’s pretty much “the dog has taste for cats.” I do understand the anxiety around the issue, and if and when I do have a kid, I will be very careful and systematic about how I introduce the kid to both my dogs.

Most of the issue surrounding dogs and children stem from the fact that dogs and kids are different species and they communicate instinctively in different ways. Behaviour that seems harmless and even cute to a human parent can be deeply distressing and even frightening to a dog, and dogs often exercise enormous restraint in the face of this behaviour, but everyone has a breaking point. I’ve seen videos where a parent encouraged a child to bounce up and down on a rottweiler’s back. The dog showed every sign of anxiety in the situation (whale eye, tongue flicks, etc.) – tolerated the behaviour all the same – but the danger there is real.

You can teach dogs to be patient and tolerant with children, but the degree of patience and the level of behaviour they will tolerate is going to vary between dogs, even as such tolerance varies among people – and there is a limit to how much they can learn. It is by far more important to teach children how to behave around dogs, from a very young age. Again, there’s only so much they will absorb (and only so much restraint a kidlet with a poorly developed frontal lobe can actually exercise!), and this is why we have to monitor dogs and kids closely until the child is old enough to manage their behaviour around dogs.

That’s a departure from the initial story, but it is a common reaction to dog-on-cat violence, so I thought it was worth making some space for that.

On a final note: this is not breed specific. Some rottweilers can be friends with cats. Some can’t. The same thing is going to be true of the vast majority of breeds. Some breeds are known for exceptionally high prey drive (huskies and malamutes, some working breeds), and really should not be homed with cats, but even in those cases there are exceptions to the rule. Some breeds are known for being very laid back about cats, and are expected to be fine, and every now and then you’ll get one of those dogs that mostly wants to eat cats.

So in summary:

We are keeping Abby. She is not a bad dog. We are stepping up her training and exercise.

Jabba is going to be okay. More on this as he heals up.

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One thought on “Dog Quest: The Price of Complacency

  1. […] obviously came back to bite me back in June. My baseline assumption was that Jabba would always be spry enough to get himself out of trouble, […]

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