Training a Vet Clinic Cat to Touch a Target

The friendly female tabby named Mama Cottrel jumped up beside me on the vet clinic bench. After petting her, I held my target stick in front of her face. Mama stared at me and then at the target stick. I waited as she first groomed her paw and then butted her head against me. She looked at me again and then the target stick. She leaned her head forward and bumped her nose against the target stick. I clicked to mark the behavior and then pulled out a wand toy. Mama laid back on the bench and stretched. She swatted at the feather toy with her one paw and then her other paw. Lifting her head, she grabbed the feather in her mouth, and continued to laze against me.

The IAABC course called Feline Behavior Solutions is described as being for “cat lovers looking to teach cats specific skills or cat behavior consultants who are looking to take on more advanced cases.” As I write this, I’m headed into my fifth and final week of class. I’ve tweaked my current training skills and I’ve acquired new training knowledge, all of which I’ll write about here over the next few weeks.

I’ll start with what was new to me in lesson one. When it comes to positive reinforcement, cats come in three types: lovers, players, and eaters. Which type of cat you have is important for figuring out how to reinforce for behavior. However, it’s not quite that simple. For example, if your cat prefers physical touch to any other type of reinforcer, you also need to determine the best delivery mode—hand, foot, or brush. For cats who respond best to play, you also need to figure out what size, shape, texture, and smell they desire. In addition, you need to figure out whether they like to bat, bite, kick, or chase the toy. Then there are the cats who like to eat. These comprise the biggest category and are the easiest to clicker train. For them, you also need to determine what taste, texture, and temperature they want. And then you need to determine how to deliver the food—whether by bowl, plate, spoon, knife, or finger.

Now that you know cats come in types when it comes to positive reinforcement, how do you actually determine what reinforces them? Start by gathering together a potpourri of toys and treats. For this experiment to work best, you might opt to go on a shopping spree. In your potpourri of toys, you should have stationary toys including balls, kicker toys, battery-operated toys, wand toys, and puzzle toys. In your potpourri of treats, you should have hard and soft treats, wet and puree treats, as well as a variety of flavored treats—fish, poultry, and red meat. Then place one kind of reinforcer in your left hand and another kind in your right hand. Note which reinforcer your cat prefers. Then switch which reinforcer is in your left and which is in your right hand. Note again which reinforcer your cat prefers. Continue to do this with all your reinforcers, until a pattern emerges.

Just for fun, I tried this experiment on our family’s three cats. To my surprise, Cinder picked puzzle toys. That said, when I train her, she actually works best for treats. My theory is that after five years of my training her with treats, she’s used to food as a reinforcer. The other cats didn’t really surprise me with their choices. Bootsie and Rainy are both eaters. Neither seemed to care what kind of treat, except Bootsie had a slight preference for ones that are chicken-flavored food. The most intriguing result is that Rainy consistently took treats from my right hand, never my left.

Due the class requirement that students use a cat that hadn’t been trained, I couldn’t use these results for my assignment. Instead, for the purposes of this class, I worked with a cat from Cotner Pet Center. Mama Cottrel is a friendly and healthy middle-aged, spayed female. When I offered her a cafeteria menu of reinforcers, she consistently picked treats over stationary toys, and so I thought she might be an eater. However, when I offered Mama wand toys, I quickly discovered that they were her real favorite.

 

I’ll turn now to what was more familiar to me, that of clicker training. In this type of training, a clicker is used to mark a desired behavior. Our instructor, Kateena Jones, compared clicker training to taking a picture. A photographer presses a button on their camera at the exact moment they want to capture an image. In the same way, a trainer presses a button on their clicker at the exact moment they want to mark an animal’s behavior. The click communicates to the animal what it did right and what action the trainer wants repeated.

There are a wide variety of clickers available. The cheapest and most readily available is a box clicker. It’s also the noisiest, and so some trainers will muffle the sound to avoid startling an animals. The next most affordable is an iClick, which comes with a coiled wrist ban. The most expensive is a Clic Stik, designed by Karen Pryor, who pioneered and popularized force-free training methods based on operant conditioning and the conditioned reinforcer. Through Feline Behavior Solutions, I learned there are also clicker options available to use with animals that don’t see or hear.  I have four of the iClick clickers because the wrist band makes it easy to keep track of them and because usually all I need to do is mark the target behavior with a click. I also have the iClick, because it comes with a retractable target stick: A little yellow plastic ball on the end of a wand.

As part of lesson one, our instructor made the following suggestions. First, we should practice clicking with a repetitive object and then a person before we start training an animal with a clicker. She directed us to a YouTube video called Clicker Mechanics where one can practice to the sound of a bouncing ball. As part of our practice, we should also record ourselves and then analyze the recording to see how we can improve. Second, when we do start training with our cats, we should prepare the rewards ahead of time. If the reward is food, it should be broken into the right size and it should be easily accessible.

In the rest of lesson one, our instructor overviewed the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. I won’t cover them in this article, because I already wrote about them in the fall.

To finish this article, I’ll share the results of my first assignment, for which we had to introduce a target to a cat and videotape our interactions. Before I do this though, I should explain I used the Clic Stik. The desired behavior is for the cat to touch the target with its nose or paw. Because the Clic Stik combines a target with a clicker, only one hand is needed to control both and therefore it’s the easiest way to conduct target training.

In reviewing my videos from the first week, I saw a couple of ways to improve. I need to stand further back; the Clic Stik is too close to Mamma’s face. I also need to be quicker when I click. In all honesty, this has been an ongoing struggle for me, and is a reason that I wanted to take this course. When Andy watched the videos with me, he had two observations of his own. He believes that Mama caught on quickly to the idea of touching the clicker, and so I should increase the difficulty level by moving the target in different directions so that she’s forced to interact more with it. He also said I needed to decide whether I want Mama to touch the Clik Stic with her paw or head.

 

In contrast to several of my classmates who were working with their own cats or with fosters, I had the challenge of working with a cat I’d never met. In addition, because I was training a cat at a clinic, I had limited control over my environment. I never knew from day to day when I would have access to Mama, what room would be available, or what distractions there would be. Unlike many who trained at home, I also didn’t have anyone to videotape me, but instead had to prop my camera on a counter and hope for the best. Despite the challenges, the unpredictability of it is perfect for me because as a cat behavior consultant I will always be dealing with new and uncontrollable environments.

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