Introducing our senior GSD to kittens
I have been with my partner for a few years now, and have decided to move in. He has a wonderful, now 10 year old GSD (Ellie) that is very, very sweet, and incredibly trained. My partner worked diligently for years with her- taking her to dog parks and dog beaches daily, lots of walks, playtime, structure, etc. She is gentle, observant, and overall a great, well behaved dog. If she passes another dog in the building, she will generally bark at them- but she otherwise doesn't acknowledge other dogs on walks, in public, or at parks/beaches.
While she's great, I am more of a cat person and waited until we were living together and settled to adopt a pair of kittens. A little over a week ago, we brought home two 9 week old kittens, obviously expecting some transition time with increased exposure. For the first couple of days, we set up a "cat island" in our living room with everything they need (food, litter box, etc) and kept her separated, either in her kennel or in another room so the kittens could explore and start to feel safe in the space. While our GSD was obsessed with watching the kittens, she never whined or was boisterous with her behavior.
After a few days, we started letting everyone co-exist in the same space, no kennel, for short periods of time. It was sort of like visitation hour at the prison, with no touching and the CO's adamantly watching. Same as before, she was incredibly fascinated with the kittens, but otherwise made no fast moves, looked at us for reassurance, and seemed to thrive when we would give her positive reinforcement for calm behavior.
Okay, so a little over a week has gone by. We are now at the point that the cats pretty much go everywhere in the house (minus closets and our storage room, mostly for safety reasons). Our GSD is out of her kennel for 95% of the day (I probably only put her in there for 10-15 minutes at a time when I'm doing something where I need to concentrate and can't have eyes and ears on the back of my head). At night, the GSD sleeps in the bedroom and the cats stay with me in the rest of the house. She has had close sniffing contact with both of the kittens, and seems to be calming down every day. Similarly, the kittens are fine walking past her, don't pay her any mind when she's eating or going in/out of the house, and only get startled and hiss a little when they are playing and inadvertently almost run into her and are surprised.
Overall, I feel very positive with how things have been going. Ellie (GSD) has not been showing any aggression towards them, but I am mostly curious as to reading her constantly watching the kittens. She always, ALWAYS has at least her body positioned in a direction so she can spot them. She goes and lays down alone, puts her head down, falls asleep, but any noise or movement from the kittens and she is always watching. Not even getting up, just watching. I was reading (as a dog novice) about their instinct as herding dogs, and I'm not entirely sure how to read her insatiable curiosity. I'm happy everyone can be out and about and everyone is behaving, but is she being so good because she is aware of our presence and suppressing her instinct?
Ultimately, our goal is to set the tone that the cats are in charge, and that the cats always win. They have to. As sweet and loving as she is, it would only take less than a second if there was an incident to turn into a tragedy. We will be separating the cats and dog when we are out of the house for a minimum of the first year, but I'd like to know: what is going through her mind? Again, I reiterate, she has done absolutely nothing aggressive towards these cats- but, I wouldn't want to underestimate her breed. Is the fact that she always wants to keep an eye on them a form of aggression? Any input would be super appreciated, just to give us some food for thought and, perhaps, a few things to keep in mind as our animals further develop their relationships with each other.
Lastly for context: my partner also has an elderly, 15 year old chihuahua (I know, lol, what a pair), and she has always been ginger with him. This may further color in some of her behavioral tendencies, as she obviously understands that just because she is bigger doesn't mean she's in charge or entitled to a smaller animal.
Below are a few pictures of our brood. Ellie (GSD) is in transit both times going to and from her water bowl.