Therapy Dogs Calm Sex-Shy Cheetahs

Canines promote relaxation in these endangered big cats so they can get down to business.
A cheetah and her best friend. (Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global)
Feb 20, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

The expression “fight like cats and dogs” may be true for many felines and canines, not to mention any number of humans. But that notion goes right out the window when it comes to cheetahs and dogs. For these two, it’s just one big love fest.

ABC News recently reported that although most of us know that cheetahs are the fastest mammals in the world, we may not be aware that they’re also the worlds biggest scaredy-cats. As a result, the animals, which have become extinct in 13 countries, don’t breed easily.

The report went on to say that, “Some zoos are introducing dogs to calm the skittish cats and bring attention to their plight. They’re pairing ‘companion dogs’ with some cheetahs to serve as playmates and to provide the cats with guidance.”

“I’m not sure when the idea of cheetah and dog pairings began, but I believe it may have started with the movie industry,” Janet Rose-Hinostroza, the animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, tells TakePart. The San Diego Zoo has been pairing cheetahs and dogs for almost 40 years and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for nearly 14 years.

Interestingly, the dogs are the bosses of the relationship. “A few decades ago, farmers in Namibia were having problems with cheetahs attacking their livestock and because of this they would shoot the cheetahs,” says Rose-Hinostroza. “To address this issue, Dr. Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, introduced the idea of having dogs protect the farmers’ livestock. She gave dogs to the farmers and when cheetahs approached the livestock, the dog would scare the big cats away. The dogs are that effective in keeping the cheetahs away from the herds.”

Rose-Hinostroza explains that the cheetahs at the Safari Park are introduced to “their” domestic dog when they’re young and the two become partners. “Being different species, the two animals have different modes of communication,” she says. “We aren’t looking for a dominant dog—we want dogs who want to befriend the cat and be a buddy. But by nature, dogs are pack-oriented and dominance is instinctive. Cats don’t think that way, they are solitary and it’s all about me, myself and I.”

“When we pair the animals, we are looking for a friendly, confident dog who genuinely wants to befriend the cat,” she adds. “Dogs want to please, while the cats could care less. The dog’s body language is constantly conveying ‘it is okay’ to the cheetah, which relaxes the cat. The dog always has the cheetah’s back but it is never the other way around. It’s all about the dog comforting and reassuring the cat. The cheetah first learns to trust the dog, then to trust their trainers and people.”

All this trust and relaxation helps the cheetahs better respond to each other, so they can mate and rebuild their endangered species. Rose-Hinostroza says that the Park is world-renown for their cheetah breeding program. “We have had 135 cheetahs born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park over a 40-year span.”

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