Lessons from Training Mama Cottrell

Mama Cottrell and I are graduates of the five-week Feline Behavior Solutions course offered by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. The IAABC says its course is for “cat lovers looking to teach cats specific skills or cat behavior consultants who are looking to take on more advanced cases.” As part of the course, I taught a friendly middle-aged cat from Cotner Pet Center to touch a target and to high-five. My work with Mama Cottrell reinforced for me the importance of daily training while also reminding me that just ten minutes a day is enough to train a cat. I also discovered the value of recording training sessions, both for playback and to develop confidence.

The fourth week of class focused on fluency. Animals are considered fluent in a behavior when it has become a natural part of their lives. In other words, they can perform the cued behavior correctly, quickly, and easily. They’ll also respond anywhere, anytime, and under any circumstances.

There are six aspects to fluency:

  1. Precision
  2. Low Latency
  3. Speed
  4. Distraction
  5. Duration
  6. Distance

As I entered the fourth week of class, Mama Cottrell wasn’t fluent in giving me a high-five. She didn’t always respond to cues, often hesitated when she did respond, and I had yet to practice with her in other locations or with others around. So I was eager to help her become fluent.

To teach fluency, our instructor recommended that we start by teaching precision or accurate response to the cue. And to teach precision, she said, we should repeat a request several times. She suggested pairing the cue with a behavior 100 times over several consecutive days. One way to do that is 10 cues per day for 10 days. It took me only two weeks of ten-minute sessions on weekdays for Mama Cottrell to acquire precision.

After an animal achieves precision, our instructor suggested the trainer next work on latency. To do this, calculate the cat’s average response time over ten repetitions. If an animal takes an average of 10 seconds, start by reinforcing at this point and work towards to the point when an animal responds within a few seconds. Mama Cottrell and I are still working on latency, but I’ve found that she performs best when I spend give her attention at the start of our session and allow her free play at the end.

Once an animal has acquired precision and low latency, the next step is to work on generalization or broadening their use of a behavior. To teach generalization, a trainer should cue an animal to use a behavior in different situations. If an animal is always trained under the same circumstances, those are the only circumstances in which the animal will perform the behavior fluently.

Some generalization was built into my training with Mama Cottrell, as we were sometimes assigned a different room at the clinic when I visited her. So at least when it comes to the clinic, Mama Cottrell is now able to give me a high-five regardless of which room we’re in In addition, during the final weeks, the clinic was being renovated, so often there were strange new objects in the rooms we trained in: ladders and various painting supplies. There were also strangers coming and going, along with loud voices. In this way, Mama learned to give me a high-five no matter the distractions. However, she has yet to give me a high-five in the presence of clinic staff.

The fifth and final week of class focused on troubleshooting and the use of video. Our instructor required us to submit video of our training sessions and to avoid relying on our memory. Relying on memory only results in guesses as to what works and what doesn’t. By recording every session and then analyzing the videos, we can observe what happens and develop measurable data. This in turn will ensure that we remain objective about what works and what doesn’t. Our instructor said that we might notice slow or no progress, low drive or interest, along with moments when an animal is distracted or frustrated.

Because I had videotaped my training sessions with Mama Cottrell, I could analyze them and adjust my training as needed. Here are some of the mistakes I discovered by watching my videos. Early on, I made the mistake of holding my clicker too close to her face. Sometimes I clicked before she responded to me or failed to click when she successfully performed a behavior. Other times I allowed her to play so long with a toy she lost her focus. After watching several sessions, I realized that I needed to ease us in and out of training by giving her attention at the start of our session and allowing her free play at the end. When I was ready to move past teaching high-five, watching a playback of my training sessions helped me pick a behavior to teach next that would come most naturally to Mama. For example, she often twirls during our playtime. Therefore, I could teach use a target to teach her to twirl on cue.

A more personal benefit to recording our sessions is that my confidence increased, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. Sure, I got to see my failures turn into successes, and that was a huge morale booster. However, just as important for me is that I started to overcome my fear of the camera. Every time I worked with Mama Cottrell, the camera captured both of us. And every time I played back those videos, I had to watch both of us. Eventually, I got comfortable enough with seeing myself on camera that I decided to create educational videos, accept online interviews, and host online chats. In other words, this class didn’t just improve my clicker skills, it also opened a whole new world for me.

I’ll end my series on my Feline Behavior Solutions course by sharing the encouragement our instructor gave us in our final week. The only way to effectively train your cat is to let yourself make mistakes. And the only way you’ll continue to improve is to acknowledge your mistakes and try to fix them. You may at times discover that your cat isn’t capable of learning a certain skill (for example, lots of cats won’t roll over) or that you need help from others (which is why I belong to cat behavior groups). Overall, though, you’ll find that the possibilities training offers are endless, if you’re willing let yourself be vulnerable.

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