Counter-Surfing and Cats: A Behavior Plan

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

For my Principles and Practices course, I had to develop a Functional Assessment Intervention Design. According to Susan Friedman, a psychology professor who pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to companion animals, a good behavior plan is one in which the environment is redesigned “to provide the animal with an opportunity to replace the function served by the problem behavior with an acceptable alternate behavior, and to allow the animal to learn new skills that make the problem less likely to occur.”

The Functional Assessment Intervention Design (FAID) for the course involved two parts. In the first part we wrote our behavior plan and in the second part we reported on the results.

Students didn’t actually need an animal present for the first part. We simply had to write about our subject. I chose my youngest cat Rainy. Over the length of twelve pages, I identified the target behavior, listed the antecedents, identified the consequences, listed strategies tried, identified a replacement behavior, and described my implementation plan.

Rainy counter surfs for food. Anytime she hears anything associated with food, such as the refrigerator or a container opening, or a dish being placed on the counter, she comes running into the kitchen, and sometimes she will also jump on the counter.” My husband and I have tried multiple ways over the years to keep her off the counter. Some have been aversive ways that would no longer be my first choice, such as spraying water at her; others have been more positive ways, such as teaching her to sit on a chair while I prepare her food. None have been entirely successful, which means she’s become quite persistent in her habit. For a replacement behavior, I picked teaching Rainy to forage at snuffle mat.

As part of the course, students received feedback on the first part of their FAID. My instructor told me that overall I had a good report but she had a few minor questions and observations. She pointed out terms that I’d incorrectly used and explained how to correctly use them. In addition, she noted that because I’d already tried a lot of environmental changes with Rainy to stop her from jumping on the counter, Rainy might not be sensitive to new changes, and so it might take a while to change this behavior.

Students had to implement their plans and track results for the second part. At the end of two weeks, we reported on the results. The rest of this article contains part of my report.

Preliminary Strategies

I adjusted the time for teaching a station. Between each meal for a total of three times a day I taught Rainy to sit at her station. Previously, I had taught her to sit during meal preparation.

I adjusted the location for teaching a station. I taught Rainy to sit on a blanket in the corner of the kitchen. Previously, I had asked her to sit next to me on a chair.

I taught her a replacement behavior. Once Rainy had learned to sit at station, I gave her a snuffle mat to forage instead of handing her a treat.

Other than to place her on the floor, I ignored her when she jumped on the counter.

Reduction Procedures

For the duration of this intervention, our family put dishes into the dishwasher after a meal. This reduced the possibility of Rainy finding food (and being reinforced by it) when she jumped on the counter. Previously, we had left dishes soaking in the sink.

For half of the first week, I put Rainy in a closed room during meal preparation. This reduced her access to food. Previously, I had allowed her free access to the kitchen. Then for the remaining two weeks of the intervention, I provided Rainy with a snuffle mat during meal preparation.

Training Strategies

  • Teach Rainy to use a blanket as a station in the kitchen
    • Reinforce Rainy for heading towards the blanket in the kitchen by clicking and giving her a treat
    • Reinforce Rainy for touching the blanket in the kitchen by clicking and giving her a treat. Reinforce Rainy for sitting on the blanket in the kitchen by clicking and giving her a treat.
    • Ask Rainy to “Stay.” Reinforce Rainy for sitting and staying on the blanket in the kitchen by clicking and giving her a treat.
    • Increase the length of time that Rainy sits and stays by increments of 10 seconds to a total of 30 seconds; continue to reinforce
    • After Rainy can sit and stay on a blanket for 30 seconds, add a snuffle mat for her to forage
  • Teach Rainy to use a snuffle mat at her station in the kitchen
    • Randomly drop treats into the snuffle mat throughout the day to encourage Rainy to forage in it
    • Reinforce Rainy for using the forage mat by praising her and giving her a treat

Reinforcement Procedures

While training Rainy to use a station, I gave her a treat if we saw her at the blanket in the corner in the kitchen. After I added the snuffle mat to Rainy’s daily routine, I put treats into the snuffle mat whenever I saw her use it.

Implementation Details

Rainy did not have access to the kitchen during meal preparation for the first four training days. The first day that I placed the blanket on the floor in the kitchen, Rainy approached the blanket and sat on it. I clicked and gave her a treat. When she left the blanket and returned to it, I again clicked and gave her a treat. I repeated this many times throughout day one.

The second morning I lured Rainy to the blanket with a treat. Then I held my hand palm up and told her to “Stay.” When she stayed still, I clicked to reinforce her. Then I counted aloud to ten. At the end, I praised her and gave her a treat. I repeated this four more times in the morning. Mid-afternoon and mid-evening, I also repeated this procedure.

On the third and fourth mornings, I lured Rainy to the blanket three times per day with a treat. We practiced longer stays, twenty seconds on the third day and thirty seconds on the fourth day. At no point did Rainy leave the blanket until I released her.

On the first morning of the second week, I lured Rainy to her station and then began to prepare food for the cats. She immediately jumped on the counter. I placed her on the floor, waited for a second, and then directed her to the blanket. She jumped back on the counter. After multiple instances, I put her in a closed room.

Prior to the second meal of the second week, I put shredded cheese in her station and then began to prepare food. Rainy foraged at her mat long enough for me to prepare her meal. I then put Rainy into a closed room to eat. My husband tried other incentives throughout the week such as dried fish but cheese remains the only option that I can use to redirect Rainy from the kitchen counter.

Tracking Changes

A pad of sticky notes was kept in the kitchen so that my husband and I could track when Rainy jumped on the counter and when she used her snuffle mat. We tracked incidents in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I also noted when anything other than a meal prompted Rainy to jump on the counter.

Evaluating Outcomes

Managing the environment and using a snuffle mat are considered successful; using a station is not. The number of times Rainy jumped on the counter dropped from an average of 6 to 3 when I managed the environment; the number increased to 18 when I tried a station; and dropped to an average of 4 when I used a snuffle mat. In addition, Rainy uses the snuffle mat on average 10 times per day.

Current Problems Recognized

Rainy’s drive to eat her food is a stronger drive than any treat I have tried. Even when I place her favorite treats on top of her snuffle mat, she will immediately leave them if I open a can of her food. At that point, I have to continually redirect her to treats in the snuffle mat or she will jump on the counter. This has resulted in two problems. One, I have to prepare her food quickly and so I have stopped using a puzzle feeder. Two, I have to use a lot of treats, and so Rainy has been gaining weight.

Discussion

Rainy jumped the least number of times on the counter prior to meal preparation. This suggests that my focus should be on eliminating occurrences during and after meals. A simple way to reduce occurrences during meals is to put her in a closed room.

My data collection revealed that Rainy is jumping on the counter when my husband or I are preparing a snack. We can pre-empt her jumping on the counter by putting treats in her snuffle mat before we get our snack and then eating our snack in a room other than the kitchen.

Over the long term, I am concerned that Rainy could reach a saturation point with the snuffle mat. I would like to fade its use so that we just use it around mealtimes. On the other hand, Rainy has yet to reach a saturation point with the counter, and so perhaps the best option is to make the snuffle mat always an option. In time, perhaps she will view it as less work and more fun than the counter for finding food.

*

Upon the posting of this article, I’ll have reached the end of week ten of twelve in my course. I’ll also have started writing behavior plans as part of my cat behavior consulting business. It’s been a challenging and exhausting fall, but I’m looking forward to applying my knowledge to cat behavior cases in the years to come.

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