Dogs and cats playing together? Mass hysteria!

The different ways that dogs and cats play and the best ways to make sure that they play well together.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Honey the dog asks:

My name is Honey, and I am a 2 year old Cockapoo. My little brother, Toby, is a cat, and he came to live with us a few months ago. He is 10 months old. We love each other, but sometimes we don’t seem to speak the same language, what’s up with that?? For example, I do lots of play bows, really obvious play bows…. does he understand I am saying let’s play??  When he wants to play, sometimes he stares at me and then flicks his ear… also, sometimes he just bolts out from nowhere and tackles me….. any insights will be gratefully accepted.

Professor Boo responds:

I can really relate to this question.  I have a cat, too – her name is Freya and my daddy found her in a tree in our yard.

She likes to chase me around and sometimes jumps at me.  I never play bow her because I just don’t play bow easily.  My big little-brother does play bow her but since he is 85 pounds she sometimes runs from him when he does this and sometimes she just sits there and looks at him funny.

I have also observed him telling her off when he thinks she is going to get in between him and his food.  She understands this very clearly and is gone is a streak of black and white fur when he does this.

From my perspective, Freya knows exactly when I want to play and she lets me know when she wants to play.  The same is true with Porthos.  Dante doesn’t play with her too much these days.  Although cats and dogs speak different species language I think they, like humans, eventually start to understand each other.

Dante doesn’t play with Freya much these days.

But in his prime he and Merlin-the-cat were great buddies.

Play is understood as play based on the consequences that follow

If they are having fun they will recognize it as play and log that away for later reference. 

Dogs and cats that don’t like each other will clearly demonstrate their intentions. 

Cats can hunker down, ears back, and they may hiss. Some cats will run away. Unfortunately, this can cause the dog to chase them. My cat Freya is a funny cat and she will actually chase me around the house. I don’t especially care for that.

Dogs who don’t like cats will often try to put more distance between them and the dreaded cat by growling, barking, showing teeth, etc.  Dogs will more often (except in Freya’s case) be the chaser and chase the cat sometimes in a predatory manner and sometimes to drive the cat away. 

Ultimately we can know it is play by the wriggly body language and bounciness from each.  Threatening body language is hard and direct – no bounciness and joy can be seen. Either animal may want to make more distance between him and the other, or want to come if for fun and play

Honey, it sounds like you are communicating with Toby very nicely. 

It is possible he understands you want to play but remember cats tend to play differently – they like to lie in wait then pounce (it seems they wait until they think no one is looking – but who really knows what’s in the mind of a cat).  This could be why Toby stares, then flicks his ears, and then pounces.  You have told him you are no threat and would like to play and in typical cat fashion he has understood this and said, “Great, I’ll get back to you on that in my own good time…”

While these are just my observations from my doggie perspective with Freya and even years ago with Tara and Merlin you can find more about cat behavior at this web site:  Cat Behavior Associates.

Alpha. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Alpha is the most misused word in dog training and often leads to abuse. Here’s the correct definition of the word.

One of the most misused terms in all of dog training is the term Alpha. I hear this term used over and over again.

Alpha is a scientific term that allows researchers to identify the animal in a social situation who has the most access to the most resources from food to safe sleeping places to reproduction.

Alpha is not about force, aversives, bullying, or dominance.

Here’s a video by Dave Mech (pronounced Meech), the renowned wolf research biologist who coined the wolf “Alpha” reference in his 1970 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, where he discusses how the term is woefully outdated because of subsequent research that proved their original Alpha concept was an unfortunate result of non-optimal study subjects.

It would be much like observing humans in a prison and extrapolating from that that all humans sleep with shivs under the pillows and use cigarettes as currency:

Being the pack leader is about being a parent and not a bully. It’s not about rolling your dog, kicking your dog, poking your dog with a snake-like sound, using shock, pinch or choke collars on them, or using any other aversive tool.

If someone tells you that to be the Alpha in your pack you need to dominate by force or cause pain to your dog, it’s not a position based in behavioral science but is simply their choice.

If you want to be the leader of your pack then be your dog’s parent.

Teach them, guide them, love them, play with them, redirect unwanted behaviors, and control access to resources.  In short, be everything they’re instinctively expecting out of a parent and nothing they’re not.

Not only is this proven behavioral science, it’s just good plain old common sense.


Leadership, or Who Let the Dogs Out First?

The myths of canine social behavior, the misused and misunderstood concept of dominance, and building a strong relationship with your dog.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ost social organizations have levels of hierarchy to make them run smoothly.

When we emphasize humans as “Leader of the Pack” vis-à-vis their dogs this does not involve force or physical control.

Traditionally, in most canine and human societies the leader is the one who controls all goods and services – food, play, toys, outside, social activities, etc.

And the leader is the one who takes care of the family/pack.

We hear a lot about showing our dog that we are their leader by being dominant.

The behavioral definition of “dominance” refers to hierarchy in a social organization, not an implicit personality trait or forcefulness.

Example: your boss is dominant in the workplace because he/she is in charge of working hours, your tasks, what you get paid, time off, etc.  However, it could be illegal or just unpleasant if your boss used force to support the hierarchy of the workplace.  The good boss that has a good leadership relationship with his/her employees explains the order of the workplace at the beginning then he/she uses incentives, bonuses, and commissions to reward employees for work well done.  Yet, even with this kindness and guidance this good boss remains in the “dominant” leadership position.

To build a good leadership relationship with our dogs:

We need to teach solid boundaries – like our boss expecting us in at nine – if we’re not, we lose pay.

We need trained behaviors we can request from our dogs – like our boss would ask us to perform our job.

We need to respect our dogs – like the good boss respects that you can’t work 24/7.  You need enrichment time.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your dog walks in front of you or goes out the door first.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your dog walks in front of you or goes out the door first.

It matters that your dog is not pulling you because you have taught them it pays to walk on a loose leash = Trained behaviors and boundaries.

It matters that you can ask your dog to go ahead of you because maybe it’s easier for you at that moment = Requested trained behaviors.

It matters that maybe this is your dog’s free time to sniff and have some fun = Freedoms you allow because your dog needs enrichment, too.

To be a good leader for your dog, your relationship needs to be built on understanding, guidance, and respect; and you must take responsibility for Learning, Teaching, and Reinforcing.

A little D.A.P.’ll do ‘ya.

Using D.A.P. can really help in addressing common, low-level behavior issues in dogs – especially when used with positive reinforcement.

It comes up frequently during my behavioral consultations and I’ve mentioned it before here on the blog, but I can’t say enough good things about D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone).

I won’t say that it’s the Holy Grail of resolving commonplace behavior problems but it’s no sippy cup, either.

Natural appeasing pheromones are produced by lactating females shortly after birthing a litter and give the young puppies a feeling of well-being and security when they’re near mom.

D.A.P. works by mimicking those natural pheromones and helps to give adult dogs a similar sense of calm and relaxation to what they would have felt as nursing puppies.

Many clinical trials of D.A.P. both in home and shelter situations have shown that it can help as a relaxing treatment when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement desensitizing and counter-conditioning (DS/CC).  My own anecdotal experience in the field has shown the same.

It really can help and – best of all – doesn’t have any of the negative side effects seen in many anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals such as deinhibition and others.

Additionally, D.A.P. can be used in concert with many psycho-pharmaceuticals (but please double-check with your veterinary behaviorist first.)

Keep in mind that D.A.P.’s effects are not dramatic and most folks know it’s working when the collar expires and the anxious behaviors return or the diffuser runs out and they wonder why the dog is pacing again – then they check the diffuser and experience a “D’oh!” moment.  It is designed to simply take the edge off gently and inconspicuously.  This allows us to better do our DS/CC work with your dog.

We can simply stop without the step-downs necessary with many anti-anxiety medications.

If your dog is a re-homed dog new to your home this can help them settle in faster.  If your dog is not fully comfortable with everyone in their home this can help them be a bit more at ease.  And, if it doesn’t work for your dog we can simply stop without the step-downs necessary with many anti-anxiety medications.

For our part, at home we plug in the D.A.P. diffuser.  Porthos is a pretty anxious dog and when he’s stressed it affects his diabetes so it is just a precaution to keep him on an even keel.

D.A.P.’s not meant to address out-of-control anxiety issues and like psycho-pharmaceuticals it needs to be used in conjunction with behavior modification.  So, if you’ve got a dog that exhibits low-level, occasional fears and anxiety related issues you might want to give a D.A.P. diffuser or D.A.P. collar more than just a look while you are contacting a behavioral professional.

Positively Confused

What is positive reinforcement and positive punishment and why positive reinforcement is the best and most effective way to train your dog.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]: What’s the difference between positive reinforcement and positive punishment?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: If Professor Boo had a time machine he would go back in time to find B.F. Skinner and his cohorts and have a stern talking to them about the naming of the four quadrants of Learning Theory.

Positive Reinforcement (shorthand for Positive Reinforcement is PR or R+) and Positive Punishment (shorthand for Positive Punishment is PP or P+.) are just two elements of the four quadrants of Learning Theory.

The other two elements are Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment – we will save those for another day.

Positive Reinforcement means that we are offering a timely reinforcer to the subject to insure the behavior is repeated – YIKES!

Okay let’s try again –

Positive Reinforcement allows us to build our bond with our dogs while we are teaching them good behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement is offering a reward (or something the dog likes) immediately after any behavior we want or like so we will get more of that behavior. When we reinforce the behavior by following it immediately with a reinforcing event like a food reward, a great game, the butt scratch of a life-time or anything that makes the dog vibrate with JOY the dog will repeat the action that earned him that great reward. Generally we also add in a praise word, or “marker word,” or clicker to mark the good behavior and predict the reward is coming for the dog. This eventually allows us to fade out the food (or other added reinforcer) so that we don’t always have to be strapped with hot dogs to take our dog for a walk.

Positive Reinforcement allows us to build our bond with our dogs while we are teaching them good behaviors. It helps the dog to enjoy and look forward to learning, and to be more creative and confident in general. Neurological studies have shown that all of us (human, dog, cat, etc.) learn better when our brains are bathed in the kids of neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions.

Positive Punishment means that we are offering a punisher to the subject to insure the behavior will stop. – YIKES again!

Okay let’s try another way –

Positive Punishment breaks our bond with our dog and our dog’s trust in us.

Positive Punishment is offering a punisher (or something the dog does not like) AS* the dog is producing a behavior we don’t like/want so that the dog will stop doing it. When we want to punish a behavior we must apply the punishing event AS* the dog is still in the act of the unwanted behavior (otherwise we run a big risk of actually punishing the dog for stopping). Traditional punishing events have included yelling, pulling on the choke collar or pinch collar, subjecting the dog to any kind of pain from a shock collar to the more severe methods of drowning, flipping, rolling, scruff shaking, or kicking, and worse. Studies have shown us that most of the time when punishers are faded the unwanted behavior returns because remember in PR – we are looking to have the animal repeat the behavior to EARN the reward. In PP we are simply looking for the animal to stop the behavior in the face of the punishment. This means you will always have to punish or at least threaten to punish if you choose this route.

*Note – because human timing in training is relatively slow in comparison to our dogs when using P+ one has to aim for “AS” in terms of the timing of the punisher so that one actually gets even closer to the event to be punished.  With R+ we have a little more wriggle room in terms of timing – maybe a quarter of a second, but that’s a lot in training terms.

Positive Punishment breaks our bond with our dog and our dog’s trust in us.  It teaches them that learning is at the very least no fun and at the worst painful. It does not build confidence – it breaks it. It all too often leads to more aggression from our dogs.  Neurological studies have shown that punishment acts quickly to suppress a behavior because of the survival instinct of avoiding pain and threats; but it comes with baggage in the nature of fears, re-directed and learned aggression, and shut down behaviors based in chronic stressors that can lead to a host of physical illnesses. In summary positive punishment not only carries a host of fallout, it has make you ask the following, “Did I get this dog so I could cause him or her pain and fear?”

When using Positive Reinforcement you must know what your dog likes and doesn’t like.

When using Positive Reinforcement you must know what your dog likes and doesn’t like.  If you have a dog who is head-shy then patting them on the head when they do something you like is a PUNISHMENT not a reinforcer.  If you have a dog with gastric issues then food rewards may not be a fun thing for your dog.  You have to know what your dog loves (remember: makes your dog vibrate with joy) in order to offer him/her that for a reward.

The biggest trick to Positive Punishment is TIMING and being ready to break your bond with your dog while you actually discourage your dog from wanting to learn.  Using Positive Punishment could shut your dog down leaving them living their lives like a hostage never knowing when the next scary thing will happen to them. Or you could make you dog more aggressive – studies have shown that one of the biggest contributing factors to aggression in dogs (and people, too) is using harsh (aggressive) correction on them. You might be told or be thinking that your dog is not feeling the pain from the shock collar because they are not responding, but in fact your dog is not responding because he/she is actually overwhelmed with stress and cannot comply.  All you will be doing is making their stress bigger.

Transport yourself back in time to when you were in school and answer this question: Would you learn better if someone smacked you in the head every time you misspelled a word or made a math mistake or would you learn better if someone showed you where you made your mistake and then rewarded you each time you overcame each one?

There is nothing that can be taught by positive punishment that cannot be taught by positive reinforcement. In fact, there is more that can be taught by positive reinforcement. The choice of how you wish to treat the animal in your care is up to you.

Boo prefers PR!