Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Clicker Expo 2007: At the Hotel with Little Bit

Its been a long time since I have been alone with one cat. I had forgotten the sweet intimacy of that relationship. My cat Dorothy and I were very close. For ten years it was just the two of us—until my husband and I married and adopted more cats.

I brought Little Bit with me to Cleveland, because she responds so well to clicker training and she travels well. Stroking a cat releases dopamine in your brain, and I know that their presences quells my anxieties. I knew I would sleep better with her here. She has been such a snuggle kitty. It is wonderful to enjoy her charming personality without interruption. Between conference sessions, I return to my room and we practice our clicker training.

The lectures send me into a panic—I still have so much more to learn! Animal training is a whole new field for me. My focus has been on environmental enrichment and behavior modification (which usually means modifying the human’s behavior to improve the cat’s situation), working within the framework of a cat’s natural instincts and desires. But I see clicker training as an opportunity to move beyond that. The teachers are very clear that training animals to do cute tricks is really not the point (though it is a helpful way of establishing an open line of communication with the animal.) That communication is the point and all of the reinforcement forges a deeper bond with the animal.

Shaping is one of the key terms in clicker training. As it was demonstrated today, shaping is a play session where anything approximating the behavior or activity that is desired is rewarded with a click and a treat. The dogs in the demonstrations were puzzling out and experimenting with what actions triggered the click and treat. It was clearly fun for the dogs, they were excited and playful. Gradually, they honed in on the desired behavior and repeated it again and again. Only once they had unlocked the behavior and done it repeatedly was it given a name, ‘a cue’ to guide the dog to do it again when requested. A cue is differentiated from a command because there is no threat behind it, just the promise of reward.

It is very clear how to reinforce a behavior that you want, not so clear how to avoid behaviors you don’t want within this framework. Other than ignoring the behavior until the animal gives up, which, frankly, isn’t practical in many situations. (I’m not sure if this was said in jest, but one teacher suggested getting earplugs for the whole family because it can take up to ten days of ignoring it to get a dog to stop barking. Are you supposed to buy earplugs for all of your neighbors—or perhaps send them on a ten day, all expense paid vacation? Though to her credit, she also expressed that you need to give the dog better alternatives for getting your attention, as well as dealing with the root issue behind the barking.) When I broached the subject of dealing with feline aggression with a couple of the teachers, they basically dodged my question. I’m not sure if that is an issue of not having the time to explore the issue appropriately, lack of expertise about cats in particular or just that clicker training isn’t an effective tool in these situations.

I first learned about clicker training when I called on another behaviorist for a second opinion in a particularly challenging aggression case. The client’s young male Bengal persisted in aggressive behavior with the older female Abyssinian. All of the conventional approaches seemed to abate the behavior for a short while and then it would flair up again. My suspicion is that the young cat was very poorly socialized as a kitten. The breeder’s website boasted that the kittens were kept caged so that they would feel comfortable in confinement. This theory had clearly not worked as this young male was almost pathologically afraid of being confined and almost destroyed his mouth trying to bite his way out of a carrier.

The behaviorist was purportedly a Bengal expert and she suggested clicker training as a solution. When the young male would chase the female, the client should cue him to a ‘go to mat’ then click and treat him as a way of distracting him. When we probed her about how to prevent this from turning into an unfortunate behavior chain where the cat learns that his chasing behavior is a prompt for his person to call him and click and treat him, her response was that she had to catch him before he actually initiated the chase, whenever she thought he might be about to do it. Well, you can imagine how challenging that would be to stay on top of.

The client and I settled on clicking and treating the cats whenever they were in close proximity and no one was chasing or running. This helped to reinforce the positive behavior, but none the less did not completely resolve the situation. I have had incredible success in resolving aggression cases, but that was one case that is still unresolved and I am always searching for more tools and ideas for dealing with aggression. I have ordered a book from the clicker folks called “Click to Calm” for dealing with aggressive dogs. I am hoping that some of the knowledge there will translate to cats.

If you have any innovative approaches that you have used to resolve aggression issues, I would love to hear about it.

None the less, the concept of clicker training as a way of opening a dialogue with the animal really excites me. The teachers here are highly skilled at shaping animal behavior using positive reinforcement and there is a lot to learn. Most of it is dog focused and the classrooms are filled with dogs of every description.

Apparently being the only cat at the Clicker Expo, Little Bit was invited to participate in the only session about clicker training small animals (rabbits, cats, mice etc.) That will take place on Sunday. In the meanwhile, we are working on a sitting (Hopefully eventually working up to stay-which is purportedly an easy cue for cats since the ability to wait and apparently do nothing is one of their natural gifts.) This is important, because at home Little Bit has become quite the escape artist. Everytime someone attempts to leave the house through the front door, she is there waiting to use all her powers of stealth to slip out the door. My solution to this issue is to build her outdoor enclosure (actually, my husband will be the primary contractor on this job--and her recent escape attempts are certainly motivating him to get started.) An outdoor enclosure will keep her safe and satisfy those desires so she doesn’t have to bolt for the front door.

I have already been using clicker training and the ‘come’ cue to retrieve her when she slips out. (I firmly believe that every cat should be trained to ‘come’ it is very handy in case of emergency or if the cat gets out!) But I am very excited about the prospect of training her to sit and stay, rather than hurrying out the door and blocking her exit with my feet. Today, in between sessions, we worked on shaping the sitting behavior. Every time I caught her sitting, I clicked and treated. She would hop around, rubbing me on the face, trying to figure out what would get me to treat her, the minute that little tushie got close to the floor, I clicked and treated her. She clearly loved this game. (I’ll share more about our progress as we develop the training plan.)

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