Cat Training

A few months ago, I started training my cat Alladin to do tricks. This was motivated not by boredom or excessive zeal in pet ownership, nor was it prompted by a lack of children or dog to take the brunt of my training euphoria. No, it was self-defense.
You see, Alladin is too smart for my own good, and tends to bite and scratch too much in playing, and my husband and I have lost more than a small amount of blood just by sitting still and having him attack us. If I had a dog, the answer would be to train him to do stuff, so he wouldn’t get bored (a tired dog is a happy dog!) So, sometime in September, I started training Alladin using “Cat Training in 10 Minutes” (Miriam Fields-Babineau), in hopes that he would settle down once he had a job to do. The biting and clawing have improved, and he’s a lot better when new people come over. However, we introduced a whole host of new behaviors, like jumping up onto the coffee table (something he never did before) and demanding attention (and training) when my husband and I are at the breakfast table.

Today, I read a book titled Tricks Your Cat Can Do” (Gilbert W. Langley) which is a very slim volume about cat training. It was written in the 1980’s, but animal behavior has changed only slightly in the last 20 years. Most cat training books don’t encourage you to physically move the cat into position, as most cats get very anxious when they’re touched this way, but otherwise the principles of positive reinforcement still work on cats.

However, I had to laugh at some of the tricks recommended. We’ve already covered a couple of them with Alladin, but one of the tricks recommended was the “paw in glass” trick. In this trick, the cat sticks his paw into a glass of liquid. Says the author: “When you have guests at your home and kitty places his paw in someone’s drink he will impress everyone.”

Really? Because “impressed” isn’t the word I would use to describe having the paw of an animal that regularly digs in dirt and fecal matter suddenly dunked into my beverage of choice. This particular party trick seems to me to be right up there with the “fly in ice cube” joke.

The real problem is not with this trick, which is, frankly, mildly annoying at best, and potentially useful if you have, say, a pet fly trapped on an ice cube in someone’s drink and your cat heroically rescues it. Rather, the problem with this trick is something that we’ve learned about teaching cats to do tricks in the last couple of months:
Once you turn it on, you can’t turn it off.

This is to say, once my cat has learned a behavior, it is now permanently in his arsenal of “things I can do that may or may not result in screeches of delight, being petted, or treats.” So, the “on the table” trick is the direct result of me ignorantly trying to teach him to hop onto his cat tree to do tricks. The more fool, I. On the cat tree, “hop up” earns him a treat. On the coffee table, it does not. How is he supposed to know one from the other? More to the point: how is to expected to know that I know one from the other? In the grand scheme of things, my cat outsmarts me pretty often and may simply not believe that I can tell the difference between a coffee table and a cat tree.

The truth is, I don’t particularly care if he sits on the coffee table, so I’m very lax about reprimanding him about it. I never put food there, and all he’s going to do is wrinkle the pages of yet another junkmail catalog that’s been tossed onto the table in lieu of being read. But don’t tell my husband that– this particular behavior annoys him to no end!

Anyway, the fact that we can’t guarantee he won’t do a behavior once it’s learned is the reason Alladin does not currently know how to balance on a toilet to relieve himself, and it’s especially the reason why we haven’t taught him to flush afterwards. Yes, you can teach a cat to use the potty and to flush, but you can’t always teach him to only flush once, or only after using the potty. You see the problem?

The next tricks for Alladin are simple ones. Reinforce his current set of tricks, and add “walk on leash” to the mix. We had started on it a month ago, before running into some “equipment problems,” something I’ll have to document over in the crafting blog, as I seek a remedy to his poor situation.