An Online School for Cats

These days, school is not just for people. It’s also for pets including cats.

Cat School is an online clicker training program that offers courses to teach people to clicker train cats to learn fun and practical behaviors.

The school’s founder, Julie Posluns, created Cat School when she realized that cats were missing out on the enrichment and practical skills that clicker training provides.

ALLISON: Tell me about your background with animals.

JULIE: In 2003, I enrolled in a dog training course in British Columbia. It was “accredited” and I thought that meant something about the quality and content but the program was a sham. I returned home and immediately started learning about positive reinforcement methods.

Around the same time, I acquired a new puppy. A few months later, Tyson, started showing severe signs of aggression including pinning and shaking puppies, and lunging and biting skateboarders.

As soon as I was ready to start working with dog training clients, the realization hit me: my dog was a behavioral mess. I felt like a phony and so I took a step back from training to spend more time learning about dogs and seeing if I could help my dog.

I became a dog walker, and my business started to grow. I spent many years walking dogs and operating a busy dog walking company.

In 2013, I decided I was ready for a new challenge. I returned to school to pursue an M.Sc. in Animal Behavior.

ALLISON: Why an online Cat School?

JULIE: Although my local dog walking business was going well, I was tired of the responsibility and wanted more freedom to travel. I knew it was time to shift to something more computer and education based. Because people were always asking me questions about the business of dog walking, I started doing consulting work with dog walkers.

Meanwhile, on my Instagram, where I was featuring both my dogs and cats, I was getting lots of questions about training a cat. I would spend hours on Instagram messenger helping people train their cat. When I looked around and saw the limited resources available for clicker training cats, I decided to shift gears and focus my attention on creating Cat School.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in clicker training?

JULIE: Clicker training made a profound difference in my dog’s life. It helped me manage his aggression but also have something fun that we could do together. One day I saw this fantastic canine freestyle routine, and I decided I would teach my dog all the steps. This work kept him happy, focused and out of trouble.

ALLISON: What other experience(s) qualify you to run Clicker Cat School?

JULIE: From a training perspective, I’d like to think I can create training plans that any cat owner can follow. I think that’s why my Jump through Arms tutorial featured on the Dodo, became so popular. Cat owners were inspired to try, and their success inspired others.

When I create a training plan, my goal is that the cat will move through a progression of steps in such a way that they never make a mistake. This style of training, called errorless learning, is so essential for cats.

ALLISON: Tell me about the reaction to Cat School.

JULIE: Most people react positively to cat school. It’s like they knew all along their cat could be trained.

There are a few people who vehemently disagree with training cats. Interestingly, those who oppose it most are cat lovers that associate the work, i.e., jumping through hoops and tricks, with the circus. They think it’s degrading for such a majestic animal to perform tricks.

Some people don’t see that for indoor cats, training is enrichment and activity in what can be an otherwise monotonous day.

ALLISON: What mistakes did you make when you first started?

JULIE: The biggest mistake I made was not taking enough time to figure out the barriers that cat owners might have to work with their cat. For example, helping people with their cat’s lack of food motivation often due to free feeding. Now, I have a free 7-day course to help people overcome the initial challenges they face.

ALLISON: What lessons have you learned from this business?

JULIE: Training cats and creating services for cat owners is a tiny part of my job. Not only do I need people to find Cat School, but I also need to show them the value. To accomplish this, I need to be good at social media marketing.

ALLISON: Tell me a little about your cats.

JULIE: When I started Cat School, I had two cats. Unfortunately, my cat Mackenzie passed away last November, and now it’s just my black cat Jones. Jones has a perfect temperament. He’s smart and motivated. He’s got a lot of characteristics like a dog. He’s very attentive and responsive.

ALLISON: Why did you start to train them?

JULIE: When I was training my dogs, Jones was very interested in what we were doing. Our other cat Mackenzie was a lot less confident than Jones but also wanted to learn. Training became the highlight of their day.

ALLISON: What have you learned about cats from running the school?

JULIE: I didn’t know a lot about cats when I first started the school, so there’s been a lot to learn. I was surprised to see how quickly cats can learn and how much they enjoy clicker training. Many people have cats that are extremely food motivated and will swat food right out of their hand, so I have to help the owners with that as well. However, this motivation makes them excellent candidates for training.

ALLISON: What have you learned about people from running the school?

JULIE: I was surprised at the deep and fulfilling relationships people have with their cats. I get a lot of questions about training therapy cats.

I also see people enjoying the cat community that exists via social media, such as Instagram. It’s an excellent platform for people to show off their cats and help one another.

The cat world is new to me, but so far I love it. I attribute part of that to the rewarding relationship I’ve developed with my cat. Jones is the perfect pet. He brings me so much joy.

ALLISON: What advice would you give to someone just starting to train their cat?

JULIE: Keep the sessions short and highly reinforcing. If after one try the cat gets it wrong, go back and make it easier, so they have another win. This way you avoid frustration, and the cat will love working with you.

ALLISON: Share anything else you’d like.

JULIE: I’m excited to see more people get on board with cat training. Practically speaking, there is so much value in teaching cats behaviors such as going into a carrier, wearing a harness and responding positively to nail trims. Clicker training is an excellent form of enrichment; there are endless tricks and behaviors cats can learn, and cat agility provides an opportunity for physical activity. Spending 15 minutes a day training your cat will strengthen your bond and create a more fulfilling relationship.

Interested in enrolling your cat in Cat School? Access the free course on the website: www.catschool.co and follow cat.school on Instagram

Therapy Cat Series: An Ambassador of Happiness

“Rainy’s come to visit again!” I hear this excited cry as Rainy and I start our therapy cat rounds. Since I last posted about Rainy’s therapy cat adventures, Rainy and I have completed four more supervised rounds. Although Rainy continues to have her off moments she’s growing in her role as an ambassador of happiness.

At one senior residence, Rainy and I pick which seniors to see and how long to stay. We started with just one senior, now we we’re up to four. One lady is very familiar, as we’ve been seeing her regularly since January and we’ve swapped many stories. Two other ladies are less familiar, as we’ve only been visiting them since March. The first time we dropped in on one lady, she smiled at Rainy but barely talked. The second time, I came prepared with more stories and questions, with the result that I received longer answers. As I left her room the last time we visited, I encountered a man who expressed delight upon seeing Rainy. I asked if he wanted us to visit him too, and he said yes. As we entered his room, he told me that he misses his cats and wishes that he could have one now. While he held and petted Rainy, we talked more about cats. He expressed sadness about the homeless cats, and shared memories of his own cats. I promised that we’d return.

At another senior residence, those interested in meeting Rainy sign up for a 15-minute time slot, and the visits take place in a common room. There are three regulars, along with a few who sign up occasionally, and always one or two new folks. A visit early in March went particularly well. One lady proudly shared that after seeing the tricks Rainy can do, she’d taught her cat to sit. She invited me to come to her room, so I could see for myself. Another lady said she almost didn’t come because of her migraine.” Rainy allowed the woman to hold her close during the entire visit and, by the end, the woman’s migraine was gone. Such is the therapeutic power of cats! A third lady had just celebrated her birthday and wanted hugs from Rainy. Finally, a gentleman who used to own cats before moving into the senior residence might now want to pay the hefty pet deposit so that he can have a cat again.

On my most recent visit to the senior residence with Rainy, we had more positive experiences. One lady shared that she really wanted to adopt a cat, but she couldn’t afford it, and so we talked about the alternative of fostering a cat. As Rainy and I stroll the hallway between visits, a gentleman passing by expressed admiration for a cat on a leash. I invited him to spend time with Rainy, which he did until the next scheduled visitor. Later, as I prepared to leave, I ran into a lady who wanted to share stories about her cat. As we talked, another lady stopped to see Rainy. She then expressed an interest in signing up for Rainy’s next visit. The first lady then extended an invitation for the second lady to meet her cat too. When I left, the two were making plans to get together!

In additional to our official cat therapy rounds at the senior residences, we sometimes get asked to visit people not on our list. For example, at one of the senior residences we were asked to see a patient who was about to check-out at the end of a week-long stay. The lady shared details of her cat and asked for stories about Rainy.  After we swapped cat stories, she asked me about my interest in cat therapy and how we got started. When time came for me to leave, she thanked me for bringing Rainy and said: “You made my day.”

Rainy and I have now completed twelve supervised therapy rounds. I love that our cat therapy work is strengthening our bond. Just as much, I value the opportunity it gives us to show how amazing cats are and answer questions about cat care. Rainy does more than make people happy–she’s an ambassador for cats! Cat therapy is a win-win on all levels! Stay tuned for future updates, and email me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom if cat therapy interests you.

Pet Video Training Library: Teach A Cat To “Come”

Welcome to Lincoln Animal Ambassador’s pet video training library! Each month, we’ll post a video that teaches you to train your cat to perform a particular skill. Although cats and dogs do learn differently, most of the time these lessons can also be used to train a dog. After watching this video, if you need more help, please email us  at: allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom. (Replace the “AT” with “@”, and replace the “DOT” with a period.)

“Come” is the one command that could save your pet’s life. Here’s how to teach it.

PART ONE

  1. Sit near your pet.
  2. Show her a treat.
  3. When she focuses on the treat, praise her.
  4. Wait for her to touch the treat. As soon as this happens, reward her with the treat.

PART TWO

  1. Step back a foot and present the treat again.
  2. Put the target under your pet’s nose.
  3. While saying her name, and issuing the command “come,” draw her closer by drawing the treat closer.
  4. When your pet comes to you, reward her.

PART THREE

  1. Each time you repeat this exercise, increase the distance by a foot.
  2. If at any point your pet stops coming to you, close the gap until she comes successfully before you widen the gap again.
  3. Keep training sessions short, and spend no more than a few minutes on each command.

Thanks to Andy Frederick for his assistance in shooting and editing this video.

Therapy Cat Series: Our Therapy Cat Adventure Begins!

Rainy and I have started our therapy cat visits! We alternate between two senior residences, for about an hour each Friday morning. My tote bag is always packed beforehand and ready with treats, toys, blankets, sanitary pet wipes, and camera. The morning of a visit I clip Rainy’s nails and brush a dry shampoo through her coat. When it’s time to head out, I put Rainy’s harness on her and load her into a crate. After we arrive at our destination, I load Rainy into her pet stroller. Then we spend an adventurous morning visiting seniors.

Rainy and I began our visits to one senior residence back in mid-January. Each time, we pick who to visit and how long to stay. We’ve gone four times, and Rainy has continued to improve.

On our first visit, Rainy started out shy but eventually relaxed. When I took Rainy to meet my supervisor, Rainy immediately hid under an office desk. My supervisor and I ignored her while handled paperwork and swapped cat stories. Then my supervisor explained that the cat therapy program would mirror the dog therapy program: The apartment of each resident participating in the therapy dog program has a dog magnet at the top of its doorway. Naturally, cat magnets will now be used to signal which residents would like a visit from Rainy. After we finished deciding the details of our visits, my supervisor gave us a tour of the facility. At one point we paused to visit a cat-loving resident. By this point, Rainy felt comfortable enough to greet people and be petted. A successful start!

My supervisor encouraged us to not rush our progress. For that reason, we made only one stop on our second visit, and it was to the cat-loving resident that we had met previously. At first Rainy just stayed in her stroller while Ann* and I chatted. Ann* asked Rainy’s name and her age. She also shared some of her life story with me. During a lull in our conversation, I gave Ann* treats to entice Rainy out of her stroller and into a chair. Rainy soon relaxed enough that she agreed to perform some tricks. Then she wanted a break and so I took her for a walk on leash in the hallway. When we returned to Ann’s* room, Rainy allowed me to place her on Ann’s* lap and for Ann* to pet her.

It was on our third visit that Rainy showed how comfortable she had become with Ann*. Upon entering Ann’s* room, Rainy jumped out of her stroller, flopped onto the floor, and rolled her scent into the carpet and onto Ann’s* feet. Then while Ann* and I chatted, Rainy lay on a nearby chair and ate treats from Ann’s* hands. At the end of our visit, I took photos of the two.

Our fourth visit did not go as smoothly. Rainy’s comfort level fell when I challenged her by taking her to visit additional residents. Our first stop was a quick one. We started with a lady who had just returned from breakfast and was bundling herself in blankets. She smiled at us and I exchanged some stories with her, but then she drifted off to sleep. The next stop lasted longer. The lady smiled and bubbled with conversation. She used to own a cat and wanted to know everything about Rainy. Despite the allure of treats, Rainy mostly stayed near me. Our last stop was to see Ann*. Rainy snuggled with her while I share photos, but then Rainy hopped into her stroller and turned her back to us. Enough excitement for one day!

Rainy and I began our visits to the second senior residence in early February. Those interested in meeting Rainy sign up for a 15-minute time slot, and the visits take place in a common room.  We’ve gone three times, with mixed results.

On our first visit, six residents had signed up to meet Rainy. She mostly ignored the first visitor, preferring instead to explore the room. After that, she amazed me with her aptitude! Rainy seemed to figure out that the residents needed her and that her job was to provide comfort. She sat in the lap of the subsequent residents, let them pet her and talk to her, and gave them her full attention. One of those residents had lost a dog a few months earlier and still felt sad. She talked to Rainy the entire fifteen minutes. Finally, after six visitors and 90 minutes of socializing, I put Rainy back into her stroller for a well-deserved rest.”

Two weeks later, Rainy and I returned. During the first time slot, Rainy again mostly explored the room. After that, in contrast to our previous visit, Rainy remained restless. Her ears perked and her tail twitched at every little sound from the hall or parking lot. Her attention was clearly elsewhere. She even refused to sit with two of the residents. I left feeling as if the visit had been a disaster, and even questioned whether I was making the right choice in asking Rainy to be a therapy cat.

As soon as we got home, I posted my concerns to I-CAT. One member reassured me that it might simply be an issue of maturity. Rainy isn’t even three years old and so is still a “child.” Another member pointed out that it could simply be an issue of experience. Rainy has only been a therapy cat for two months! Several members recommended that I proceed more slowly with Rainy and to not push Rainy to sit in people’s laps. They advised that most residents will be happy simply to pet Rainy, and they suggested that I allow her to stay in her stroller or that I put her in a basket or on a chair. They also encouraged me to take more of a leadership role during our visits. If I’m nervous Rainy will pick up on those feelings. In addition, if I want Rainy to stay close to me, or if I want residents to let Rainy make the choice to sit with them, then I need to communicate this clearly through my words and actions. Members also agreed that I should reduce our outings from 90 minutes to 60, the latter being the average length of therapy pet visits.

To my relief, our most recent visit was a positive one. On our way to the senior residence, I took Rainy to the pet store. I did this so Rainy will associate car rides with all kinds of outings. Then when I set up in the senior center’s common room, I gave Rainy several options of places to lay: her stroller, a bed on the table, and a basket next to the resident. I also loaded up her basket with toys. I did these things to maximize her comfort. The next part of my strategy was to provide each visitor with a dish of treats so that Rainy would view strangers positively. Finally, because Rainy had shrunk back from a man in a wheelchair during our last visit, I initially held Rainy to reassure her but then gave the man a tube of squeezable food. As soon as Rainy smelled it she sniffed his hands and purred. Finally, I explained to each resident that we would respect Rainy’s choice of where to be, whether it was on their lap, in her stroller, or elsewhere. Being curious, Rainy ultimately did explore the table, basket, and even the laps of residents. When she got into people’s laps, I praised her and stayed attuned to her reactions. At the first sign that she felt discomfort, I offered her a break. During that time, I invited her to do tricks with me or simply let her chill out in her stroller.

About nine months ago, I decided to post timely updates about my training with Rainy. I knew this was a risk. We were inevitably going to make mistakes and those less-than-successful moments would be in print for anyone to read. But I also believed that sharing our ups and downs, and what we learned from them, would benefit others. Some might learn from our mistakes, while others might take comfort in knowing that pet training doesn’t require perfection. Stay tuned for future updates and email me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom if pet therapy interests you.

* Name of resident has been changed for confidentiality.

 

 

The Cat Training Series: Clicker Training

Clicker training has been around for over half century. B.F. Skinner discovered its underlying principles in the 1940’s and used a clicker publicly as a marker with a dog in the 1950’s. Within ten years, dolphin trainers began to use whistles for the same purpose, that of cuing animals with sound to perform desired behaviors. In the 1970s, clicker training gained popularity with pet owners, when animal trainers Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes started giving clicker training seminars to dog owners. After that, in 1998, Alexandra Kurland published Clicker Training for Your Horse. This text led to the publication of training books for other companion animals including cats. What follows are the highlights of my attempts to teach our three cats clicker training, a feat that has perhaps educated me as much or more than it has them.

Day 1: I picked targeting for my first training technique. Targeting is considered a versatile training aid in which animals practice touching a target for a click and a treat. In addition, targeting is also considered the easiest behavior for novice clicker trainers to learn. For these reasons, targeting seemed the ideal place to start. To teach targeting, I used a target stick and canned chicken. Then I followed these steps:

  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats looked at the target stick.
  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats touched the target stick.

Two of our cats immediately figured out that looking at and later touching the target stick earned them treats. Our third cat wanted nothing to do with the target; instead she tried to figure out where I had placed the treats, so that she could go straight for the prize.

As for me, I struggled with two challenges. First, trying to retrieve meat with the same hand that I held the clicker slowed my response time. Second, I found it cumbersome trying to avoid dripping chicken juices onto our carpet.

Day 2: Undaunted, I refined my training technique. Instead of using canned meat, I switched to deli meat that I could more easily grab. I also began using my left hand instead of my right to retrieve the meat. Both changes speeded up my delivery of incentives. But now I had a new challenge. Apparently, I’d trained two of my cats so well that they expected treats from my right hand, and they refused to believe that I might use my left hand.

Day 5: After a few days of lackluster clicker training, I decided to consult my husband, who has trained our dog for almost ten years in agility. He asked three questions, all of which caused me to think.

  • What command do you want to use?
  • How do you want the cats to touch the target?
  • What is your end goal?

We decided that I could stick with the command “Touch,” the cats should touch the target with their nose (not their head, cheek, or tail), and the first goal was for them to sit in an assigned spot. If I could achieve this goal, the cats would be less underfoot during meal preparation. Eventually, I could also modify this goal, so that the cats would retreat to their crate. After this goal is achieved, the next will be to send them to a crate in the case of an emergency. Clicker training could someday save their lives!

After our discussion, Andy took on the role of handing out treats. In doing so, we figured out yet another way to refine my training technique. Instead of handing the meat to the cats to reward them, he placed the meat on the target. Now the cats would not just connect the clicker with a treat, but they’d also connect the target with a treat. The cats showed their appreciation with a flawless performance!

Week 2: I moved on to the next step in targeting: changing the position of the target after each success. Each time my cats touched the stick, I clicked and treated. Initially, the higher or lower I moved the target, the more confused were the cats. Rainy even at one point rolled on the ground, as if looking cute would earn her a treat. With practice, I found it helped if I made sure that the cats were watching the stick as I moved it. Interestingly, two of them had no trouble following the stick when I moved it to the left or the right. Our third cat, however, made it clear that she wasn’t going to move far for a reward.

For the rest of week two, I continued to change the position of the target after each success. The cats showed more and more focus, until near the end of the week when I moved our training session to a different time. Normally, we head to the basement right after lunch, but that day I had other commitments, and it was nearly suppertime before we started our session. Big mistake! Cinder’s tail twitched and she persistently meowed, while Rainy rubbed her head against me and purred. Neither of them could concentrate. Not even the juiciest meat could tantalize them. Their minds were firmly fixated on supper! Only Bootsie complied.

Week 3: I moved closer to my end goal, using the target stick to direct the cats to an assigned spot. As with previous attempts, the first attempts had a low success rate. Cinder twirled multiple times before she’d follow the target stick, while Rainy wandered this way and that before she’d follow the target stick. As we continued to practice, they began to dawdle less and moved to their assigned spot more quickly.

In contrast, Bootsie became more reluctant. I was puzzled by her behavior. When I held the target stick in front of her, she’d gladly touch it with her nose and accept her reward. But when I moved the target stick to the left or right, which would require her to move to touch it, she stared at me as if that action would take too much effort. One reason for this might be that I can only reward her with prescription food, due to her food intolerance, and so she may not as highly motivated as the other two cats. On the other hand, if I forget to take the food with me when I leave the room I always find it gone upon my return, so obviously she likes it. Another factor could be her feral background. While she has adjusted to domestic life is many regards, she remains wary of new situations. Maybe the farther away I move the target, the more suspicious she is of trickery.

One of the leaders in clicker training, Karen Pryor, has described clicker training as “a clear form of communication that combined with positive reinforcement is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.” After three weeks of clicker training, I’ve decided to take each cat at their own speed. With Cinder and Rainy, I’m mixing up their training by using the target stick to lure them through obstacles on an agility course, which is not only teaching them obedience but is also rewarding them with fun. As for Bootsie, I’m simply trying to get her to take one or two or three more steps to the left or right each day, with the realization that in doing so I’m building trust. And, ultimately, trust is the foundation for any training routine.

The Cat Training Series: Catching up with Rainy

RainyTraining rule number eight: Figure out the source.

Training rule number nine: Maintain a routine.

August was a chaotic month. As a result, Rainy and I got less training done. We took another trip to Hearts United for Animals, returned a couple of times to the local rose garden, and met that puppy again.

What’s most rewarding about our visits to Hearts United for Animals is that they’re always an adventure. The first Sunday of August, Andy and I packed food, water, and a litter box. Then off we drove with Rainy to Auburn. As soon as we entered the agility building, we heard shelter dogs barking in the next room. I immediately pulled out high-incentive treats. Rainy gobbled them up but remained vigilant. I didn’t push her to perform. Instead we strolled around the building and, as we encountered obstacles, I encouraged her to try them. She agreed to do the table, the tunnels, and the dog walk. When we figured out that she felt most comfortable in the tunnels, we used them to our advantage. I’d face her in the direction of a tunnel, direct her through an obstacle, and then allow her to retreat to the tunnel. After doing this a few times, Andy had a different idea. He carried her over to the next room and lifted her up so she could see the dogs through the window. After a minute, she seemed calmer, as if simply knowing the source of the noise was enough. She was now willing to tackle obstacles closest to the door, such as the A-frame, weaves, and teeter. Once she had run a few courses, we allowed her to explore, and she discovered spider egg sacs. Our trips are always an adventure!

Sometimes the lesson I learn from repeating an outing is all the things Rainy doesn’t like about a certain location. The rose garden is an example. It’s located next to a main street. Even when traffic on it is light, what traffic there is still whizzes past, and this puts Rainy on edge. While I do enjoy seeing the varieties of roses, they’re of no interest to Rainy. She sniffs the grass and no doubt enjoys the smells. She sits on my lap and soaks in the sun. But that’s it. To date, Rainy’s favorite places seem to be the indoor ones.

My in-laws have a toy poodle puppy. Andy and I first took Rainy to meet him in July. During that visit, we took precautions, and placed on Rainy on one side of a baby gate and Toby on the other. Everything went well! During our second visit, I kept Rainy in her carrier until after dinner but then leashed her and let her out. It only took only a few seconds before Toby barked and bounded right up to her face, ready to play. Rainy immediately hissed and swatted him. He backed away but didn’t flee. Instead he tried approaching her from behind. Again, Rainy hissed and swatted him. This time Toby’s demeanor changed. He grew quiet and his tail went still. While he didn’t flee, he opted to seek refuge with his owners. At our third visit, Toby barked and jumped, ready to play—from a safe distance.

When life gets busy, I can easily let routines slip. That happened in August. At first my plan was to just skip one day. Unfortunately, all too soon that one day becomes two or three days. Before I realized it, a week has passed. Thankfully, Rainy is forgiving. When I finally rolled out the stroller, she was eager as always to train.

A New Way of Thinking About Training Cats

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Sometimes an idea can revolutionize one’s world. My background is that of a dog person. When I began to train our current three cats, I initially drew on my experiences with dog obedience and agility. Then I read The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. It inspired me to develop a whole new training mindset. I began to see training as being about more than teaching commands and tricks, engaging a cat’s mind and body, or even building a stronger bond. Those are all excellent outcomes, but training for me is now a matter of not taking my cats adaptability for granted; it’s a matter of parenting my cats to maximize their happiness indoors as part of my family.

I have an ongoing list of skills that I want to teach our cats and am tackling them one at a time. For example, perhaps because Cinder came from a shelter, she’s possessive of her food. By that I mean, she growls if anyone or thing goes near her food. One way I’ve tackled that problem is to give Cinder what she most needs: privacy when she eats. All three of our cats have separate dishes and eat in separate rooms. At the same time, I want to be able to place a dish in front of her and remove it without stressing her. I’d also like to be able to give treats to my cats without squabbles or stress. Cinder shouldn’t view treats and meals as a fight or flight situation. One way I’ve tried to tackle the problem is by teaching Cinder a couple basic obedience commands.” Cinder (and all our other pets) must sit before I give out food. I’ve also drawn on a command from the dog world called “Leave it.” In this scenario, I hold treats cupped in my hands and then order: “Leave it.” Cinder used to initially sniff and butt my hands. Only when she walked away or otherwise showed no interest do I let her have the treat. Although at times she needs reminders, Cinder has gotten much better at showing patience.

Perhaps because Bootsie is a former feral, she doesn’t like enclosed spaces. This posed a huge problem when it came to taking her to the vet. I would have to first lure her into our library and close the door and then I had to stress both of us by trying to scruff her to put her into a crate. The Trainable Cat contains an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of teaching a cat to accept a crate, and it’s one of the first training methods outlined in the book that I tried. Everything was about baby steps. First, my husband and I replaced our closed plastic crate with an open wire crate. Next, I placed treats next to the crate. My husband also bought a soft pet bed that fit perfectly in the new crate. These would encourage Bootsie to develop a positive attitude towards the crate. Over a span of days, I gradually moved her treats further into the crate until she had to completely enter the crate to reach them After that, I also began to serve her meals in the crate. The experiment was even more successful that I dreamed. Bootsie now feels so comfortable in the crate that she often sleeps in it or retreats to it when startled. But would her attitude towards the crate change the first time I had to shut her inside it to bring her to the vet? I realized that I needed to train her in advance to be comfortable with these things, and not wait until her first vet visit to expose her to captivity and transportation in the crate. For that reason, I’d often close her inside the crate and carry her to different places in the house.  I’d even take her out to the car in her crate. Of course I rewarded her with treats throughout this conditioning. And it worked! After we took her to the vet for the first time, her attitude towards her crate didn’t change. She continued to view it as a place of comfort and safety. I’m now using the same baby steps to teach Bootsie to get into and ride in a pet stroller. If one day you see me taking her for a ride around the neighborhood, you’ll know I succeeded!

I have no idea why Rainy doesn’t like loud noises, but her fear became a huge concern when we almost lost her this past July 4th when the sound of fireworks caused her to stop eating for three days. One way I’ve tackled the problem is to give Rainy what she most needs: soothing music to camouflage the fireworks and a pet-sized dosage of Benadryl to numb her anxiety. At the same time, I can’t predict when other noises might stress her. Case in point, this past fall I found Rainy hidden under the bed covers when our neighbor was having her roof re shingled. The problem was the nail gun used to secure the shingles. I can’t expect her to be okay with every loud noise, but I do want her to learn to ignore common sounds such as thunder, traffic, and the banging of the teeter totter when we do agility. Andy helped me tackle the latter. He taught Rainy the ‘bang game’, where the ‘up’ end of the teeter is held close to the ground and a treat is held over it so that Rainy has to step on the end of the teeter to get the treat. In other words, the pet is rewarded for making the teeter ‘bang’. Now Rainy barely flinches when the teeter hits the floor. But if Rainy is to be comfortable with loud noises when I’m not around to protect her, I need to generalize my training efforts. And so, I’ve been taking her to new places armed with treats. Those of you who follow my agility series know that we’ve been making progress!

Someone I know once condemned those who view their pets as “kids”. Her reason? She felt such pet owners are the most likely to spoil them and let them misbehave. For me, the experience has been the opposite. The more I’ve come to view my relationship to our cats as that of a “parent,” the more I’ve realized the depth of pet owners’ responsibility to our animals. They used to live out in the wild but we’ve turned them into our companions, and as such they now depend on us to show them how to live contentedly in our homes and with our families. For me, it’s been all joy to invest in them as I would “kids”; the bond that we’ve developed through our training times is priceless.

The Cat Training Series: Rainy Visits A Park

Training rule #6: Take precautions.

Training rule #7: Praise baby steps.

Last month, to better prepare Rainy for doing agility, I decided to expose her to as many new situations as I could. I started by introducing her to the great adventure of our front porch and then encouraged her to explore the stairs and sidewalk. I also began inviting more visitors over to see her. With the start of a new month, I decided it was time to venture beyond our yard.

Day #1: I took Rainy to a nearby park in a pet stroller. When we got there, I clipped a leash to her harness and took her out of the stroller to let her explore. Despite my feeding her treats, Rainy immediately found a bench to hide under. I picked up both her and the treats. Then I sat with her on a bench. Rainy nibbled at treats in my hands, all the while staying alert to the world around her. She’s a cautious cat, which isn’t necessarily bad; her caution keeps her near me and the stroller While we sat, a man strolled by, then stopped to glance back at us. “Is that a cat?” he asked. When I said yes, he told me that he takes his cat to the park too. His cat is old and loves the outdoors. He left and a family came along. The two children pointed and exclaimed, “A cat!” No one came over to pet Rainy, the way they would have if I’d had our dog with me, but from their excitement I could. Next another man walked by. He stared and then laughed, but he said, “Have a good day!” And you know what? We did. Rainy and I soaked in the sunlight and enjoyed the glorious bright and warm day.

Day #2: One of my training rules is to build on success. For that reason, I headed back to the park with Rainy. We were assaulted with a lot of chatter even before we reached the park entrance. Two large families passed us, with kids who once again acted happy or perhaps amazed to see a cat at the park. At the first bench, I took Rainy out and put her on my lap. Another of my training rules is to provide high incentives. Today I brought goat cheese. I didn’t even try to hand feed her, but just let her stick her tongue into the container. Although her body trembled at all the commotion going on, Rainy did relax enough to eat her treats. And while she ate, I caught up on phone calls. When I was done, I put Rainy on the grass. She just sat and looked at me. I tried multiple places and got the same reaction. I respected her stress and brought her back to the bench. Unlike the day before, however, this time Rainy didn’t dive under the bench. Instead she climbed up on it and looked around. I smiled and sat beside her. Baby steps!

The Cat Training Series: : Building My Bond with Rainy

This month has been an adventurous one for our Rainy girl! She has been introduced to the great outdoors, our porch, and the sidewalk in front of our house. She’s also met one of our neighbors. We wrapped up May with more visitors and outings.

Day 1: When a visitor stopped by today, Rainy came strolling into the living room. I picked her up and brought her over to see our visitor. Greetings done, I left our visitor to get something. When I returned, I found that Andy was giving treats to Rainy and having the volunteer give her treats as well. He told me later that Rainy was frightened by our visitor. This surprised me because she had been fine in the living room. Cats are territorial. Did she not like our visitor having access to other parts of the house? Pets bond with their owners. Was Rainy timid because I wasn’t there? I don’t know, but her reaction makes me realize I need to be less casual about our new activities. Rainy is no longer a desperate stray kitten, and there are situations in which she’ll need time to adjust, and I should respect that as her guardian.

Day 2: Years ago, as a naïve new cat owner, thought that my years of experience with dogs and the insights from other cat friends was enough. Now I am not content to settle, and so I read lots and lots of cat books, the latest being Adventure Cats. In it, I learned a little tidbit. If one decides to introduce an indoor cat to the great outdoors, one should carry them out. Why? To avoid teaching them that it’s okay for them to go out the door, and thus decrease the chance that they’ll run away. Today I carried Rainy outside and I like that strategy a lot better. When I was coaxing her walk out the door, I was sending her mixed messages: When she’s on leash I encouraged her to walk out the door, otherwise I would shoo her away from the door. By carrying her outside for training, I can give her the consistent message that she’s never allowed to walk out the door.

Day 3: Last week I tried to build on success by encouraging Rainy to explore outside a little more each day. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how people and animals often get comfortable with each other simply by spending time together. For that reason, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Rainy and I just spent casual time together on the porch. I read a little from a book and researched a little on my laptop, while Rainy checked out the sights and sounds. One day there was rain and wind; another day there were bikers, kids, and dogs. On both days, after settling into the porch territory, Rainy searched for the treats I had scattered. In addition, Rainy tugged on her leash when she reached the stairs. I asked her, “Do you want to go for a walk?” Then I packed up my stuff and headed into the world with her. We walked one way and then the other on the sidewalk outside our house. I kept watch for dogs and other potential dangers. Both days, after about five minutes, Rainy calmly returned to the porch and stood at the door.

Day 4: Another visitor! A friend of mine drops by to talk about cat rescue. She meets the pets. We look at photos and share bios of cats needing homes. Then I bundle up Barnaby and Rainy for an outside jaunt. I walk Barnaby on a leash while my friend pushes Rainy in the pet stroller. Barnaby sniffs the grass. Rainy watches the world from the safety of the enclosed stroller. It’s another ordinary day in the neighborhood. We complete our trip around the block, head to our house, and then stop. My friend removes her water bottle from the cup holder atop the stroller as she gets ready to push the stroller onto the grass. Suddenly, Rainy retreats to a corner and then starts twirling around and batting at the stroller. Something about my friend taking the water bottle from the stroller and putting the bottle into her pocket startled Rainy. I take the stroller and talk in a soothing voice to Rainy. When she’s calm, we head inside and I have my friend give her treats. I want the visit to end on a positive note so that Rainy doesn’t associate strangers with bad stuff.

This month’s attempts to better prepare Rainy for doing agility have been enlightening. Part of me has wondered if our quiet home environment has made Rainy less suited to being an agility cat. But indoors she bounces off the walls with curiosity and activity. In addition, on the one day that I recently took Cinder out onto the porch, she reacted in a much more introverted manner than Rainy. I know Cinder likes her home, but she does go on stroller rides with me, and I thought she might do okay on the porch. She immediately found our living room window, stood up on her hind legs, and peered into it. When I didn’t take her inside right away, she searched out the door and parked herself in front of it. There is an obvious difference between her and Rainy, enough that I am satisfied Rainy could come to love the agility life.

Even if Rainy ends up making it clear that the agility life is not for her our attempts to achieve that dream are forging a stronger bond between us. She views me more and more as a source of fun for her life. And I am being reminded repeatedly that, just like people, each cat is unique. In turn, I am trying to train and hang out with each of my cats in the ways that they most prefer, and thereby growing in my relationship with them. What better could I and the cat trio ask for?

The Cat Training Series: : Rainy Ventures Beyond the Porch!

Training rule number three: Build on success

Training rule number four: Be prepared for the unexpected

Training rule number five: Know the signs of your cat’s stress

Last week, to better prepare Rainy for doing agility, Andy and I decided to expose her to as many new situations as we could. I started simple, by introducing her to the great adventure of our front porch. By the end of the week, Rainy no longer feared the porch, and so it was time to build on success. For week two, I made plans to encourage her to explore the stairs and to walk on the front yard with me.

Day 1: Upon returning from a daily walk with our dog, I met my neighbor. She had mail for me and offered to bring it to me. I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to ask if my cat could meet her. While my neighbor went into her house to fetch our mail, I grabbed a can of salmon and leashed up Rainy. As soon as Rainy saw our neighbor, she turned and tried to hide behind my legs.

Since adopting Rainy, Andy and I have invited friends over to see her and have taken her to visit in-laws. She’s not unaccustomed to strangers. Yet she did act wary of them when we visited Hearts United for Animals, and so perhaps we’ve gotten too lax about socializing her. After all, as they mature, cats can grow timid. At any rate, Rainy’s reaction to our neighbor is proof that exposing her to new situations is a very good idea.

Here’s where being prepared for the unexpected helps. I calmly sat on the porch and started scooping out salmon from a tin. I put some morsels on a plate and kept the rest on my fingers. I then extended my hand to Rainy and patiently waited for the fish to tempt her. Sure enough, she soon licked my fingers. I repeated the same action, but extended my hand less, so that she had to walk a few steps toward me. I kept doing this until Rainy came all the way up to me. Through all of this, my neighbor and I casually chatted.

The next step was an equally important one. I gave the tin of salmon to my neighbor and let her offer some on a plate to Rainy. Gradually, I moved the plate of food closer and closer to my neighbor. When Rainy willingly came all the way up to my neighbor, I then agreed for my neighbor to put salmon on her fingers for Rainy to take. Which she did!

In this adventurous afternoon, I made one mistake. When I tried to pick Rainy up to take her inside, so that I could get treats, she resisted. To avoid getting scratched, I had to let her down. Fortunately, she was on leash and so she couldn’t bolt anywhere, but here’s where I should have listened to the signs of my cat’s stress. Even though she acted perfect agreeable to being bribed with treats, Rainy had also remained vigilant. Her darting eyes and tense body showed me that she was prepared for the worst. I should have paid attention to those signs, and instead invited her to walk inside the house with me instead of picking her up.

To wrap up this story, we tried the entire procedure again except we substituted regular treats. I scattered ones in front of Rainy, and then close to me, and then next to my neighbor. By the time the visit was over, Rainy was eating treats from my neighbor’s hand.

Day 2: One training rule is to use high incentives. I’m still trying to figure out what those are for Rainy. My cats will all coming running for cheese, but Rainy might be lactose intolerant and so I have stopped feeding her dairy foods. After doing some research, I discovered that there are options such as lactose-reduced cow’s milk made for cats (sold in pet stores) and goat cheese. So, today I tried goat cheese.

After coaxing Rainy outside with it, I scattered some on the porch. She gobbled up the cheese and immediately meowed at me for more. To challenge her, I sprinkled pieces on the stairs. At first, she hesitated. Venturing onto the porch was one thing; going past the porch was an entirely different story! Only when I sat on the stairs did she agree to follow. Rainy is my shadow! We sat on the steps and enjoyed the twitter of birds and chatter of squirrels. To challenge Rainy even further, I sprinkled goat cheese on the sidewalk. Again, Rainy stayed put until I lead her onto the walkway. There, Rainy not only devoured the cheese, but also discovered the glory of grass. She nibbled on the blades and tuned out the world.

Day 3: Just like the first week, I switched to commercial cat treats on our final day of outdoor training. Always, the big question is: Will Rainy stay outside with me no matter what incentive I offer? I throw treats about the porch and she races after them, tracking them down one by one, sometimes with the help of my pointing finger. I throw treats onto the stairs. She occasionally checks to ensure I am with her, but otherwise gamely searches them out. Finally, I throw treats onto the walkway. Then together we search for them until they’re all gone. And then we’re both ready to go inside for a nap!