Friday, July 08, 2005
Anything you can mew, I can mew betterA brief history on the position of Shelter Cat:
The Shelter Cat is given free run of the back area and offices of the shelter in exchange for allowing strange dogs to come up and sniff him or her. This service lets us safely observe dogs reactions around a cat so we can better place them in appropriate homes.
It is not just any cat who has the chutzpah to meet and greet dogs of all shapes and sizes. These cats tend to be in a league of their own and they necessarily have unique and large personalities.
Tigger is our third shelter cat. The position, like all other staff positions, is subject to At Will employment and our previous two cats quit to accept better offers of permanent residence in adoptive homes. Better hours, I'm told, though fewer open cans of wet food.
Tigger is a small, slender cat who is mostly orange on top and white on the belly, paws, and nose. One eye has severe cataracts so the pupil reflects silver instead of black. This rather makes him look like some sort of furry pirate. Tigger is also vocal. Very vocal. You can usually locate him by noise alone. While our previous two shelter cats managed to find their own amusement (which primarily consisted of sleeping) Tigger is BORED. He wants to be picked up, pet, fed, scritched, allowed in forbidden areas of the shelter and he wants it all right now.
We have tried various approaches to cater to Tigger's demands. We've placed a luxurious scratching post and cat bed in our food storage room. We've offered him little toys with treats tucked away inside. But yesterday, I tried something new. I began training Tigger.
The beauty of Positive Reinforcement training, we have always been told, is that it can be (and is) used to teach any animal of any species. There is nothing in this method of training that is specific to dogs. Well, I had a hot dog and some free time, so I headed over to N.'s office (a frequent haunt of Tigger's), and watched our shelter cat at work.
Tigger was sitting on a chair complaining about the fact that he was being ignored. I tore off a tiny chunk of hot dog and held it out to the beleaguered feline. Tigger immediately popped up onto his hind legs to reach it and swallowed the tidbit down.
Aha. A behavior.
I spent the next couple minutes giving Tigger hot dog and marking the moment he rose up onto his hind legs with the word "yes". Then I stopped and waited. This is the moment of truth. Would Tigger repeat the behavior without a bit of hot dog held over his head? I waited. Tigger waited. I waited. Tigger lifted and batted a single paw in the air. I waited. Tigger tried the other paw. I waited. Success! Up he came off both front feet. "Yes!" and Tigger got another treat.
We are now working on both sit pretty and shake and Tigger seems to be enjoying the training (or at least the hot dogs). And, miracle of miracles, when we train, he works silently.