Reinforcement Schedules with Mama Cottrell

Mama Cottrel jumped onto the vet clinic bench. She swatted at the feather toy with her paws. Then she rolled on to her back. Just as quickly, she hauled herself forward and lunged at the toy. Catching it, she let herself fall back again. After a few more swats, she leapt up and chased after the feather. She cradled it in her paws and nosed at it. We repeated this hunting game one, two, three times, and then I hid the wand toy behind my back. In its place, held out my target stick. Mama stared at me, then the ceiling, and then the target stick. She tucked her front paws under her chest and flicked her tail. Then slowly and deliberately she leaned forward and touched the target with her nose. Instantly, I pressed the clicker and whipped out her toy. And so the hunt resumed.

I’ve just finished a five-week course called Feline Behavior Solutions. The course is offered by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. In the first week, I learned how to determine the right reinforcement for a particular cat and I tweaked my clicker training skills. I also applied those skills to teaching an untrained cat. The cat is named Mama Cottrell and she’s from Cotner Pet Care and you can read more about my teaching her to touch a Clik Stik here. Each subsequent week, I’ve continued to learn more about cat training and improved my clicker training skills.

Our instructor started the second week with an overview of reinforcement schedules. She said that anytime you want to teach a new behavior you should begin with a continuous schedule, which basically means to reinforce your pet every time they correctly perform a behavior. The upside is that your pet will quickly learn the new behavior. The downside is that if you suddenly stop offering the treat, your pet will also eventually stop performing the cued behavior.

For this reason, once your pet has become proficient in a new behavior you should switch to an intermittent schedule. In this type of schedule, a reinforcer is given after a variable number of responses are given by your pet. My training with Mama Cottrell is a case in point. For five consecutive days, every time I held out my Clik Stik and she touched it, I reinforced Mama’s behavior by letting her play with her favorite wand toy. Once she’d mastered the skill, I began reinforcing target behavior intermittently. Sometimes I reinforced after she touched the target twice; sometimes I reinforced after she had touched it four times. That way, I always left her guessing as to when she’d receive a reinforcer, and so I never gave her a reason to stop touching the target. This is how her performance became reliable.

Once her performance was reliable, I could then offer Mama Cottrell new challenges. Our instructor assigned us to require our cats to take a step, and then to stand, and finally to walk a couple of feet to touch the target. If our cat was successful at all of these, then we were to use the target stick to lure our cat around objects to various spots in our room or house.

Of course, cats tend to go at their own speed. Trainers also tend to vary in their expertise levels. Some of us were more successful than others. Mama and I were not in the high achievers group! As you’ll see in the first video, I spent a lot of time waiting for Mama to acknowledge the target stick. She chose instead to groom herself or stare at me. My fourth video showed an additional problem, which is that Mama had figured out I was hiding her wand toy behind my back; as you’ll see, she often paid more attention to it than the target.

Fortunately, our instructor wasn’t looking for perfection. Instead, she wanted us to reflect on our performances and then determine ways to improve. To warm Mama up for a training session, I tried playing with her as soon as I arrived, but then she didn’t value play as a reinforcer. I also tried taking time to say hello, pet her, and offer a few treats. That strategy got Mama to where she would lean forward or take a step to touch the target.  When I posted my videos to our class forum, one of my classmates noted that Mama seemed more likely to touch the target when I held it below her eye level, and so I made a mental note to keep the target low in the third week.

My experience with trying to train Mama has reminded me of how much patience training can require. I’ve been training my own cats for so long that I’ve forgotten how hard it can be to teach an animal. Working with Mama is just as much about learning who she is as it is about teaching her. Therein lies both the challenge and the fun!

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