The kittens have been home for a week now. A sibling pair who have been handled calmly and kindly since they were born, and as different as salt and pepper, they have each other to play and cuddle with, and me as “mom” to ask for food. Their transition here has been fun and easy.
I never doubted that River, my 14-year old Cocker Spaniel/Border Collie mix, would be safe around them. He respects cats, and has some of the best social skills I’ve ever seen with other dogs. When I first learned the term “calming signals” and what it means, I recognized dozens of things he does.
The kittens have fully functioning hisses, spits, and arches to set their boundaries around him. Why have they needed to? River is fascinated with them—as are we all! He wants to sniff their butts, and get closer than they would like.
When I saw him approach them with pricked ears looking super interested like a herding dog, I watched and wondered if I needed to intervene. When he began licking his lips, I became concerned.
When I first got him a decade ago, he had killed a chicken that his dog buddy let out of the coop. Prey drive is real. So I put him on the retractable leash as back up. And I kept watching.
The kittens continued to hiss and spit and play. They were not super concerned about him.
Then I noticed River offering to play with them. He did play bows, he lay down, and the when on. Licking his lips was a calming signal! Calming signals are body language used to let other animals know, “I am no threat.” Dogs use them; horses use them. They form the basis of herd or pack communication, and when well understood, avoid spending energy on unnecessary conflict.
My 40-pound dog grew up with a kitten. He doesn’t play with dog toys; he prefers cat toys. It took me years to put those pieces together. He thinks kittens are friends to play with, while the kittens are happy playing with each other.
This most excellent dog takes his job as a farm dog seriously. He watches our perimeter, and leaves signs for the local wildlife to show that he is on duty. He has also been busy keeping track of our two new family members. I am delighted to see him offer to play with them just as he also offers to play with me.
It just took me a couple of days to figure it out!
I spend a lot of time paying attention to equine body language. It helps put my horse “patients” at ease, it helps me track how they are responding to my work with their body, and it helps keep me, and them, physically safe.
I am looking forward to learning about feline-canine interspecies communication first hand. Stay tuned.