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Why did our dog kill our cat

Why did our dog kill our cat? This is a question that Jack Russell/Parson Russell Terrier owners ask more often than other dog owners. Even when the terrier is raised with a cat, there are specific reasons these dogs may kill a household pet. My article, originally published in Grit Magazine, helps dog owners of all breeds understand how certain inbred drives can shape dog behavior, giving credence to specific breed warnings such as the one that states that Jack Russell Terriers may not be safe to keep with cats.


The Truth About Jack Russell and Cats

The JRTCA warns that cats are not safe with Jack Russell Terriers or as AKC calls the dog Parson Russell Terriers. However, there are Jack Russell owners who claim they had a cat and a Jack Russell and never had any issues. So what is going on? Is there a trick to making this work? Will things be fine if you raise the two together? There are a lot of questions to answer to get to the truth about keeping, or not keeping, Jack Russells and cats together. So let’s look at some facts and some answers.

With any breed of dog, selective breeding is what creates certain characteristics in a dog, while diminishing or eliminating other behaviors. Sometimes, dog owners forget that at one time, all dogs had behaviors seen in wolves. Part of a wolves ability to survive in the wild depended on hunting. The instinctual skills that helped the wolf secure a meal included the ability smell food sources, stalk, sometimes herd, and kill their prey. After the prey is killed, wolves would become possessive and guard their part of the bounty. The breeding process that took us from wolf to our different dog breeds, changed different aspects of those characteristics. For example, herding dogs will give chase, but not drag down and kill the animal.

Selective breeding was used to develop the original Jack Russell. Historically, the job of the Jack Russell was to flush fox out of dens without harming the quarry. As more and more people used Jack Russells for hunting, breeding of these dogs began to diversify. People still bred for what came to be called “soft” dogs, because they didn’t harm the quarry. In areas where there was too rocky of terrain to dig out a fox that didn’t bolt, “hard” Jack Russells were used. These dogs were bred to grab a hold of fox, and drag the quarry out. Sometimes the dog would kill the quarry. Some Jack Russell lines were bred for pet qualities. Those Jack Russell had may or may not have much hunting drive. If you own a Jack Russell who doesn’t have much hunting drive, you may find this dog may not have any issues with cats or other household pets.

When it comes to Jack Russells having issues with cats, there are some factors that can contribute to the unwanted demise of a cat. For example, Jack Russells who have a higher predatory drive may see cats as prey, and end up killing the cat. Trying to convince the dog that the cat isn’t on the quarry list, can be very difficult.

One way people may try and change a Jack Russell’s perspective about the classification of a cat as prey to that of a companion, is to raise a Jack Russell and cat together. This can work for other breeds of dogs, but not always with Jack Russell Terriers. The problem is that the predatory drive that whispered into the dog’s ear to pursue the quarry, may not show up at the puppy stage. However, during adolescence, that predatory drive can emerge. In some Jack Russells, this drive may arrive as late as three years old. So even if you raised the dog and cat together, a cat may end up killed while the owner was away, because the dog re-evaluated the cat’s status as prey, even though the two had lived together for a while.

Another problem that can result in the unexpected death of a pet cat is what can be referred to as a frenzy-like state that accompanies a kill. Looking back at wolves and how they hunt, if a wolf grabs a deer, the deer often cries out in distress. That distressed sound becomes a signal for the other wolves to join in the kill. Although most domesticated dogs have this drive bred down in intensity or eliminated completely, the Jack Russell more often has a strong drive to kill an animal that sounds in distress. If a cat happens to get a paw caught, the cat may make noises which in some Jack Russells, can trigger the Jack Russell to go in for the kill. If the owner is not around when this happens, the cat may not survive. This may also be the reason certain Jack Russell owners have reported that they came home one day to find one of their Jack Russells dead, even though the group of dogs had amiably lived together for years.

So what is a Jack Russell owner to do, especially if they already own a cat? You need to know how your dog reacts in this situation before you can consider your cat safe. If you have a dog who doesn’t obsess over your pet guinea pig, then the dog is less likely to see cats as quarry. But of course, this may not ensure the cat is safe. You must also know how the dog will react when an animal sounds distressed. I always feel it is best to be safe rather than sorry, and never leave a cat alone with a Jack Russell, even if they get along fine when I’m around. Also keep in mind that just because one cat is safe around your dog, a cat new to the household may not be not be accepted. In general, it is best to not leave a cat and a Jack Russell together without supervision.

My dog Cookie was easy to figure out as to how she would react when an animal was distressed. If I took her to a lure course, she’d hear the excited sounds of the other dogs on the sidelines, and work herself into a frenzy. I also happen to know if I grabbed a hold of one of our chickens, and that chicken squawked, no matter where Cookie was or what she was doing, she’d come running with killing intensions. She’d even leave her favorite food to answer this primal call.

Even though Cookie had too much hunting drive to make a cat safe on our property, we manage to keep barn cats. To make sure those cats were safe, we always made sure where the cats were when the Jack Russell were outside. Even though Cookie never tried to attack our barn cats, things changed when we got a new kitten. Even though I tried to tell her “no,” Cookie was determined to attack. Fortunately, the kitten was in a crate when I first tried to introduce them and wasn’t hurt. I felt that the higher pitched pleading a kitten sometimes made, to Cookie, sounded too much like an animal in distress. To convince Cookie not to kill the kitten, we did some specialized training. The kind of training I used was similar to the training in the last chapter of my book Training the Hard to Train Dog for a dog named Chamois.

The first part of that training involves teaching the dog to look to you for guidance, especially when the dog wants to do something else. That is a little different than just looking at you using the “watch” command. When teaching the watch command this way, the dog learns that to get what he or she wants, he must first look to me for guidance. My favorite way to do this is to hold a treat at arms length. I find the normal response is for the dog to stare at the treat as if that will insure the dog gets what he or she wants. I use shaping to get the dog to learn to look at me to get the reward.

This all may seem like a minor difference for when the treat is awarded. However, you may find some dogs who will sit if you hold out a treat, will resist doing this exercise. In my book, I give the example of a Jack Russell named Roxy. Roxy was very selective about following commands from her owner, and would almost always demand a treat be offered first. When I instructed Roxy’s owner to hold the treat to the side and wait for eye contact, Roxy absolutely refused to comply. In canine culture, looking an owner before taking action puts the owner in charge. Roxy liked being the one in charge and fought doing this command for a long time. Persistence from her owner finally won out. After succeeding at this training, all of the dog’s defiance began to crumble.

Once I establish my leadership with this kind of “watch” training, I teach the dog to listen to me when the dog is in pursuit of something else. This helps the dog learn impulse control. Our independent Jack Russells can too easily forget you exist when they get a task in their mind. The “get-it” and “leave-it” training helps them learn to listen before acting on their impulses.

By training the dog to learn to listen and halt in the middle of pursuing a treat, the dog can begin to learn to halt in the middle of other predetermined actions, such as the pursuit of a cat. But I will be honest, this takes a lot of practice. I have also discovered when it comes to pursuing a cat, I need to interrupt the dog before the dog gets into full pursuit. In fact, I knew of a Jack Russell owner who tried using a shock collar to stop the dog from chasing a cat. The owner didn’t try to zap the dog until after the dog was in full pursuit, and found out the dog ignored the electronic collar completely. A good rule of thumb is to strive for early intervention. I also recommend using training and not using shock collars.

Cookie never killed any cats, although cats were certainly around our place. I attribute my success to both my training efforts, and my management efforts. If you have a cat and a Jack Russell, don’t assume that since nothing bad has happened yet, that your cat will always be safe. Also, don’t assume that raising your Jack Russell with a cat will insure the cat’s safety. Be aware that having one cat doesn’t mean you can bring a new cat into your house without extensive training. This can especially be true with kittens since they make higher pitched sounds and can may sound too much like an animal in distress. When you are at home, be mindful of how your dog regards the cat. In general, don’t leave Jack Russells and cats alone together. Consider crating your dog when you are not home. If you use a crate correctly, dogs don’t mind this tool.

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