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For Cheetah Cub, Dog Is a Cat’s Best Friend at the San Diego Zoo

February 8, 2017

For Cheetah Cub, Dog Is a Cat's Best Friend at the San Diego Zoo | Golden Meadows

Dogs – they’re man’s best friend. Whether hunting or relaxing by the fire, our dogs give us companionship, loyalty, and enduring friendship from the day we adopt until the day they move on. From the time man first began interacting with wolves right up until present day, we’ve shared a deep and untenable link that connects us.

As the San Diego Zoo discovered, sometimes that link isn’t just between dogs and humans, either; it can be between a pup and another animal, too. The dog’s fierce loyalty is what led them to try pairing companion dogs with cheetahs in the first place.

Turns out that connection works quite well, though it might seem like an unlikely connection at first.

Wait…Aren’t Dogs and Cats Mortal Enemies?

This is a common misconception! Truthfully, dogs and cats live together in harmony all over the world – both in homes and even sometimes in the wild. One excellent example of this lies in wolves and cougars; although they will occasionally hunt one another if one is weakened, most cougars will respect the fact that going up against a pack of wolves probably won’t benefit them in the end.

Why Choose Dogs?

We know that dogs are loyal, friendly animals with tremendous patience (at least when trained properly). But many other animals can fall under this designation, too. Goats, cows, and miniature horses have all been companion animals on farms or in zoos in the past. What makes the dog so special?

The answer lies in the fact that dogs are man’s best friend.

You’re Okay; I’m Okay

Dogs have a natural affinity to humans; in most cases, they’re relaxed and accepting, even when new people arrive. In a zoo or sanctuary, hundreds of people could potentially mill about nearly every day of the year.

For a cheetah, who has very little experience with humans and may find them frightening, this can be extremely disconcerting. By pairing the animal with a dog early in life, the dog becomes the cheetah’s guide. When humans make the cheetah nervous, his canine best friend will show him that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Meet the Buddies

So who are the San Diego Zoo’s hang-about-towns? None other than Miley the husky mix and her best bud, Bakka the cheetah. Each comes from a very different background, but they’ve managed to find common ground.

Bakka, the San Diego Zoo’s cheetah, hails from South Africa. Like other cheetahs in captivity, he was hand-picked in his youth to become a conservation warrior long into the future. Bakka is an especially friendly and relaxed cheetah who is quite fond of his human handlers (at least in most cases); this makes him especially well-suited to life in conservation education.

Miley, on the other hand, was picked to become Bakka’s buddy based on her demeanor. She’s relaxed, friendly, and graceful, even when under pressure. Best of all, she showed an immediate desire to be Bakka’s friend. Although trainers began slowly, first placing the pair in side-by-side cages, Miley never showed signs of fear or aggression when exposed to Bakka. Unlike some dogs, she is naturally curious, open-minded, and patient.

What Makes a Dog a Suitable Buddy?

Like therapy dogs, pups chosen to buddy up with big cats and other potentially dangerous animals must clearly show a relaxed, friendly attitude and measured response to stress. Dogs who display anxiety, aggression, or even extreme dominance wouldn’t fare so well. Bakka could, in play, accidentally trigger a territorial response. At the end of the day, Miley unfortunately wouldn’t come out on top.

But that doesn’t mean that Miley isn’t dominant at all; in fact, in terms of this relationship, she is top dog! Fans who visit often notice her taking the leash in her mouth and “leading” Bakka around, or initiating play with various objects in the pen. Furthermore, Bakka often looks to Miley for direction when she’s feeling unsure.

Miley’s ability to lead without bullying her best friend is what makes her so truly special.

Good Leaders Are Invaluable

Miley is the sort of pup who benefits any household. But her personality makes her especially well-suited to homes with multiple working dogs under the same roof. Whether for therapy, training, or hunting, having at least one dog that demonstrates an ability to “lead the pack” sensibly can significantly improve results from all of your canine friends.

Many working dog owners keep a well-trained older dog around during the training process simply because being exposed to a well-trained dog can improve outcomes. That’s true regardless of whether you’re training your pup to play fetch or frolick with apex predators.

Training Your Dog to Lead

If you’re considering training your dog to be head of the pack, there are a few things you need to understand. Firstly, not every pup is born to be a leader just as not every human is an extrovert or introvert. A small degree of leadership is inherent in your dog’s personality, usually from a very early age. You’re looking for a dog that shows a natural curiosity for new things, loyalty, patience, and constant but measured control over his canine friends.

Remember: aggression does not automatically equal leadership. If your dog shows signs of aggression, don’t be afraid to discourage this behavior. Most importantly, your dog’s job should always be to lead the pack, not to lead his humans; you are the true alpha, and therefore he or she should look to you for direction and respond to instructions readily. A dog that challenges his or her human repeatedly isn’t ready to serve in a leadership role.

Sometimes, dogs will show some signs of leadership but still exhibit challenging behaviors. Know that this isn’t an automatic loss; working with a good trainer ensures that you resolve minor behavioral struggles before they become worse. Allow some time with a trainer before you come to a final decision.

If you see one of your dogs exhibiting natural leadership tendencies that are positive, praise him and encourage the behavior. Positive reinforcement will provide him with the guidance he needs to get it right. But be aware that not every situation turns out the way Bakka and Miley’s friendship does. If two dogs simply refuse to follow each other, trying to force the issue isn’t likely to help.

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