I recently purchased Meowspace (for more about my Meowspace chronicles, see my past blog posts here and here) – a device that allows me to feed my cats separately, but requires the Meowspace user to learn to get in and out of a box using a microchip-controlled cat flap. Whether I trained my cat or she figured it out herself is a good question.
Even though at times I felt like she was never going to succeed at Meowspacing, it took the Nibbler less than three weeks to learn to use the cat flap. As soon as she figured it out, I lured her in, and set up a videocamera to see exactly what she was doing to get out. At first I was watching her to see what she would do once she was in the box. Turns out she was doing the same thing to me – watching me to see if I was going to help her get out.
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.
If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal.
I’ve skated through life without having to do a lot of animal training --- even as someone who studies animals! I grew up with untrained cats; the research lab I worked in as an undergraduate used key-pecking in pigeons to study their behavior (something pigeons basically learn on their own through a process called autoshaping); I currently study food-storing in squirrels --- something they are experts at. I like studying what animals do naturally --- and now I think I know why.
Pigeons being autoshaped to peck a key in an operant chamber.
I have trained my cats to do cute parlor tricks – high-five, sit, and the like. But, most of the important stuff that my cats know, they have figured out on their own, such as using the litterbox (no help from me), and using their scratching post (encouraged with positive reinforcement). But I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE training. I enjoy the parlor tricks, and I think my cats do too, but that’s a low stakes situation. Now I would like to train one of my cats to perform a new behavior – to go through a cat door into a magical box that will prevent my other cat from eating all of her food (more on the Meowspace in a future blog!).