Saturday, July 3, 2010

Po & Izzy Go to School

Obedience Training for Cats
As you may be aware (see A Dietary Indiscretion and Other Blunders), our two cats can sometimes be real pests. I mean, they're fuzzy and cute (especially Izzy), but they're also demanding, whiny, and attitudinal, and they do charming things like scratch door frames and ravel carpet and yowl at dinner time.

For people whose prior pets were limited to a well-beloved ficus and some parlor palms, this kind of behavior is infuriating, to say the least.

So fairly early on, we got the idea to train them, partly hoping that it would help channel all that energy, and partly just for the sheer pleasure of barking out an order and seeing them do what we tell them for once. We got a cat training book (Train Your Cat in 10 Minutes--or something like that) and got them reasonably competent at Sit and Come, but they were crap at duration, and everything else we tried to teach them (Jump, Stand, Stay, Get the Hell off the Counter You Spawn of the Demiurge) just left them confused.

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that my friend Cathy, who teaches dog training (specifically a kind of sport-dog training called "rally") might have some useful insights to offer.

Lucky for us, she was intrigued, and she's given us several training sessions plus lots of between-session advice. (We're propagating some roses for her, and we're going to do a little landscaping this fall, so we're not just takers--we're givers, too.)

Izzy is learning to target

Anyway, we had a session today, which made me realize how far the little stinkers have come.

Po stands. He was tired when we took the picture--usually his form is a little better than this.

They both know Stand, and Po can hold it for a really long time. They Sit and--especially Po--stay put as long as food appears to be in the offing. They both Twirl (go in a circle), though Izzy's is kinda rough. Po's been struggling with Lie down, so Cathy came up with a new way of teaching him (called capturing), and he was a real whiz. She also taught us a new way to try and make Po stop spazzing out at dinner time. She j-u-u-u-u-s-t got him to understand the first piece of the process today--we'll see how he does over the next few attempts.

Po learning to recline on command. So far, he's heavy on the reclining and light on the command part.

Here's what I've learned about training pets in general and cats in particular:

(1) It's really, really logical, but not at all intuitive. We have to break down what we want them to learn into a lot of little steps and provide a range of very finely calibrated responses. Everything Cathy tells us to do makes perfect sense--and I'd have never thought of any of it on my own.

(2) Coordinating my voice, hand gestures, clicking, and treat dispensing is astonishingly difficult. If I could dance or fence or do karate or had, in fact, any kind of physical skills whatsoever (typing doesn't seem to count), it might not be such a challenge, but it requires far more awareness of my physical presence than I would have ever expected.

(3) Learning this from a book kinda sucks. It makes a huge difference having a knowledgeable person watch you and give you feedback--explaining how your actions might be ambivalent or too complex or inadvertently teaching the wrong thing. Plus, Cathy's very good at coming up with alternate approaches when one thing doesn't work for a particular animal. Po, for example, responds well to the Stand hand signal, which is an up-pointing version of the Sit signal. But Cathy pointed out that Izzy's hesitant performance was probably due to a difficulty in distinguishing between the two signals, so I'm going to modify the signal for her.

(4) My friend knows a lot. Of course, I always assumed that she did know plenty of stuff (she has a JD, an MA, and and MBA), but I never realized how much there was to know when it came to pet training. But she's got a really astonishing depth of information and experience about the most minute aspects of training, from getting your pet to look you in the eye when you call (did you know you have to train some animals to do that?) to what kind of treats work best for training to what you have to do with your shoulders to get the best response from your pet. She's been a longtime horse rider and dog owner, so I shouldn't be surprised at how well she can read animals and how precisely she can intervene with them, but I totally underestimated the complexity of the subject.

(5) Cats can be trained! And not just by Hollywood animal trainers or that blond German who got chomped on by his own lion (name eludes me. There were two of them. In Las Vegas. Frosted hair, sparkly leisure suits?) Cathy tells me that Po is learning faster than some dogs she's trained. That's right--my cat is smart! He's kind of a grumpy, entitled jerk, but he's really, really smart!

Po does Twirl

(6) Which brings me to point 6, that training my cats makes me fonder of them. This is very useful (for the cats) when they scratch a door frame or knock one of Matt's Big Reds (Matt loves Big Red) onto the carpet. When they're being brats--which, alas, still happens--or needing expensive visits to the pet ER, it's helpful to reflect that the little hellions can do tricks on command and are smarter than dogs (Po is, anyway; Izzy... well, she's very cute) and generally have redeeming and people-pleasing qualities.

Anyway, I'm exceedingly grateful for the copious free advice and training Cathy's been giving us. If you're at all interested in dog training, you should definitely check her out at If she can achieve these kinds of results in her first attempt to train cats, her dog skills may well bend the laws of physics.

And in Other Things Zoological
Other happy things are happening at the Menagerie Chez M. Our fish made babies! (And after they'd only known each other for a couple of weeks, the little tramps. If I knew who was responsible, I'd rename them Jezebel and Casanova.) We've seen one little 3/4" white fish and one 3/4" yellowy one swimming about. We dubbed them Pearl and Penelope, respectively.

And then I recently learned that the nursery up the street actually sells both pond plants and fish, which is great because I wanted to diversify our fish collection with a couple of shubunkins. Matt said (because he is wise in his generation) that their coloring is too murky and they'll be impossible to see in our pond. This turned out to be true, but at least on those occasions that they pop up near the surface, we'll know who they are. The more different our fish look from one another, the more interesting I find them. A school of 15 gorgeous, iridescent, rainbow-striped fish that are all identical would be less interesting to me than my 12 ordinary little goldfish whom I can more or less call by name. (Or at least identify as being one of a few of individuals). Matt thinks the shubunkins are kind of freaky looking, or so I infer, because he named them Spooky and Crazy Eye.

Welcome to Chez M, Pearl, Penny, Spooky, and Crazy Eye!

1 comment:

Katie said...

Great summary! Excellent visuals and points, too, by the way :) Thanks for sharing.

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