The Meowspace Chronicles and Adventures in Latent Learning and Insight

Safe to say, this feline behavior consultant’s least favorite thing is dealing with my own cats’ behavior problems. My cats are supposed to be perfect! And in general, they are; except when it comes to food.

I’ve got two cats. One we’ll call the Vacuum, and one we’ll call the Nibbler. The Vacuum may have food security issues, or she might just really love to eat. The Nibbler, on the other hand, prefers to graze small amounts throughout the day.

Conveniently, the Vacuum is a little on the chunky side, and not the most agile of cats. The Nibbler is more active and so we fed her for many years on top of the refrigerator. This situation worked just fine, until it didn’t anymore. As the Nibbler has entered her senior years, she made it clear that jumping up on the fridge was more work than she was willing to do.

We moved her food to a lower shelf, and all was well and good for a few months, until the Vacuum realized that there was extra food…possibly within her reach. Suddenly the Nibbler’s food was disappearing at a rapid pace, and not because the Nibbler was eating it.

This led to attempts to prevent the Vacuum from accessing the food; we tried barricades and sticky tape --- but everything we did to deter her also made it harder for the Nibbler to eat. The whole situation led to a lot of frustration and kitty policing.  I found myself getting annoyed with the Vacuum for just doing what comes naturally to her – getting as much food as possible! I needed something that would keep her out of the Nibbler’s food and keep me out of the punishment/negative attention loop.

The Vacuum destroying all of my best laid plans.

Enter the Meowspace! The Meowspace is a brilliant device that allows you to keep pets separated for feeding. It’s basically a fancy plexiglass box with a cat door which can be operated via magnet, RFID chip or microchip. This allows only certain pets in; the others are locked out! I also love supporting a small business with an innovative product and very responsive customer service (I’ve called a few times with questions). So I bought one. That’s great, but how to get your cat to actually use it!

The glorious Meowspace.
The glorious Meowspace.

I was so excited to put the Meowspace (here on out, let’s call it the MS) together. I set it up and taped the cat flap open. The Nibbler ate her meals in the MS right away and I encouraged her to go in and out of the MS for treats several times. By the end of the first day, she went to the MS for her evening meal, instead of her old spot! So I thought my cat was genius and this was going to be a piece of cake (I was wrong).

She's happy to just stay in until one of her "servants" lets her out.
She's happy to just stay in until one of her "servants" lets her out.

The next day I tried putting the cat door in training mode, with the flap down but not locked. The Nibbler did NOT get the concept of a cat door, and definitely did not like the door touching her head when she went through. I tried holding the door open until she was part way through, and then let her finish passing through with the door closing on her gently. We did some interactive play with a feather wand in and around the MS, but she refused to make any moves to go through the flap on her own.

The Nibbler spent a lot of time staring through the tunnel, then walking around to the side of the MS and looking at her food dish, then going back to the tunnel, staring through it again. I liked to imagine gears were moving in her little brain. But it seemed like things weren’t really moving forward on other fronts. Frustration set in. See my blog post on my personal difficulties in training.

Time to reassess and try patience.

Getting the Nibbler used to going through the Meowspace tunnel.
Getting the Nibbler used to going through the Meowspace tunnel.

Days seven through sixteen involved a combination of lots of play, treats, desensitization, and shaping to get the Nibbler used to the cat flap touching her face. We’d also put the Nibbler in the MS for her meals, encouraging her through the flap with a lot of petting and a gentle nudge, and slightly propping the flap open so she could push most of the way through. The problem was that throughout this whole time, we basically had to help her in and help her back out.

On day seventeen, something exciting happened. I put her in the MS, then hopped in the shower. When I got out, she wasn’t in the MS anymore! She was running around the house, seeming quite excited. I set up my camera, put her back in the MS, and waited to see what would happen. More on that moment in a future blog post!

It looked like something “clicked” in her mind. Either the Nibbler was determined to get out of the MS faster than help was arriving, or that she “knew” how to get out but just hadn’t done it herself yet. And then two days later, she started letting herself into the MS as well.

Latent learning is learning without explicit reinforcement; learning is happening, but may not immediately be demonstrated by changes in behavior. Often when reinforcement is introduced or motivation is increased, that is when the learning is overtly demonstrated. A classic study by Edward Tolman put rats in a maze. While rats who were given treats for getting to the end of the maze wasted no time in navigating through it, rats who were given no food reinforcements took their sweet time meandering through. Once the other rats were offered food at the goal box, they were just as fast as their constantly-rewarded counterparts, demonstrating that they had been learning and making a map of the maze all along.

Kohler's "insight problem." Photo from Kohler, “The Mentality of Apes.”
Kohler's "insight problem." Photo from Kohler, “The Mentality of Apes.”

I don’t think the Nibbler necessarily had a moment of “insight” – Insight learning is a sudden exhibition of an adaptive response, not caused by trial and error learning or shaping. It’s still a bit controversial whether animals even demonstrate insight learning, but scientists are still actively pondering this question. A famous example of what was attributed to insight was when Wolfgang Kohler observed that chimps were able to stack boxes to reach a banana.

But Robert Epstein showed that pigeons could be given the building blocks to essentially solve the same problem in a similar manner, without insight, and without explicit training of the desired behavior.

So while the Nibbler may have acted like she suddenly understood how to get in and out of the MS, it’s more likely that the desensitization, exposure and guided “help” all contributed to her ability to solve this puzzle.

Big picture:

  • Go slow and don’t be afraid to take a step back in the training process. I had to, many times.
  • They will get it eventually!
  • Animal learning is complicated (just like with humans)!

If you are having feeding issues with your pets (special diets, dogs who like to eat the cat’s food, dogs who like to get snacks in the litterbox) – check out the Meowspace. (For the record, I have NO affiliation with Meowspace. I just think it’s a great product that can help many people!)

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