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.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Clicker Expo 2007: Treasure

As it turned out, my cat, Little Bit, was not the only cat at the ClickerExpo. There were two others who made their appearance during the Small Animal Training session. One cat was being trained as part of the ‘Acro-Cats’ performing cat group. This black beauty showed off her talents at pushing a ball with her front paws and turning a light on and off.

As a novice, Little Bit was more interested in greeting the crowd than listening to anything I had to say. (She did charm everyone—especially those who were missing their own kitties—when she merrily jumped from lap to lap for a nuzzle and a cuddle.) But she was very unresponsive to any cuing--all of her actions were self-determined.

The highlight of the clicker expo was meeting Franz. Franz is a thirteen year old, gray, long haired tom cat from Amherst, New York. At twelve years old, he was the unfortunate victim of a bad divorce. The wife left and the husband tossed the cat onto the street (in the bitter cold of upstate New York) where he survived for some time on hand-outs from neighbors, before someone finally took enough of an interest to take him to a shelter. Miranda Workman, an animal behavior specialist in the area, agreed to foster him. When she brought him to her animal care facility, he was terribly depressed and withdrawn. He didn’t want to be touched and spent most of his time in hiding.

Miranda decided to keep him and let him live out his days in peace at her facility, as it seemed that he was unadoptable. Time passed and he remained utterly withdrawn, until one day...

Miranda was working with one of her client’s cats, a young Abyssinian. The Aby was distinctly uninterested in being clicker trained and was having a lot of difficulty focusing. During the training sessions, Franz observed from his customary hiding place. Then during the third training session with the Aby, Franz bounded out of his hiding place and up onto the table with the Aby, responding to the cue to sit and then reached for the treat. From then on, he insisted on being clicker trained. Most cats can only engage for about five minutes of training. Not Franz—he rarely ever wants to stop!

A year has passed since his first training session, and Franz is now very affectionate. He has become so confident (and such a clicker training addict) that he even volunteers regularly to assist with puppy training classes at Miranda’s facility. He will stay with the puppy class, training for the full hour, which is terrific for getting the puppies comfortable with cats (not to mention wowing all those dog people!)

Miranda brought Franz to show off his stuff at Clicker Expo, because she wanted everyone to see first hand that older cats are trainable—and what a rehabilitative effect clicker training can have on a depressed animal.

During one of Karen Pryor’s lectures, she played some video of one of her visits to a shelter. There she used target training (with clickers, treats and targets) as a way of engaging depressed cats in their shelter cages. The target training got all the cats up, curious and interactive, helping them present as more adoptable when potential adopters come to the shelter to choose a cat.

Aside from the small animal class, it often seems like the Clicker Expo is all about dogs, but the true emphasis is on operant conditioning, basically the idea that the whatever the consequence of a behavior, that consequence will shape the development of that behavior. And studies have shown repeatedly that operant conditioning is universal for all creatures with a brain stem (including humans, so it also applies to cats.)

In clicker training we use the clicker to mark a desired behavior (the click helps the animal remember what that behavior was) and then reinforce the behavior with a treat. That is operant conditioning using positive reinforcement.

But understanding clicker training is much more complex than just clicking. It extends to understanding how to use cues, timing, targeting, behavior chains and all the other tools that buzzed around the lectures and were demonstrated in the labs. It was an incredibly enriching experience with expert instructors.

In addition to learning about clicker training, I had the pleasure of meeting several people who are doing or supervising important work with cats. Particularly at University of North Texas where they are unlocking some training opportunities to overcome aggression in dogs and in cats—and the process works very quickly. Much of it is still in the research phase—but I assure you, I will be going to Texas to follow up in May (more about that then.)

(To learn more about clicker training, please visit www.clickertraining.com )

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