Were you thinking I’d decided to discuss the whole ‘cats are aliens’ debate? We are just their caretakers until the kitty overlords return? Let’s do that discussion one day – but today is not that day!
I wanted to say that a month ago we got an extended cable package that now lets me see the show ‘My Cat From Hell’ which is a much better show than you’d expect. I genuinely dislike reality TV, but this show is a great exception. Not only is it a lot more sane than the title implies, but it’s entertaining and educational in the reality format. The ‘personality’ is Jackson Galaxy who is a ‘cat behaviourist’. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time – seeing some of his stuff on youtube. Picture a big, bald, tattooed, cuddly, retro hipster in California and you’d get him.
Jackson (you know, since we’re on a first name basis and all) gets it. That is pretty much the highest level of praise anyone can get from me in the realm of cat comments. He not only has excellent knowledge but also great instincts. And often, he sees that the problem is the people.
I’m not saying that the people are bad (though there have been a few who need to meet the kitty overlords!): I’m saying that many have worked themselves into untenable routines and behaviour patterns with their cats. Cats are complex and have personalities, issues and territories like we humans do – but we can’t apply human psychology to them. They are supreme hunters and this rules most their behaviour and relationships.
Jackson and I vary on one area: he never uses a water gun. I was about to say that he never uses negative reinforcement, but in the last episode I saw he used tacky tape on the table. I love that he uses this! We have used this for 17 years with our kitties to keep them off human food surfaces. Jackson gets that you should only use this if you’ve already provided kitty-friendly ‘up’ places for cats. And because it’s in-the-moment punishment, the cat ‘gets’ the lesson pretty darn fast.
I use a water gun. I use it rarely, carefully, precisely, and disproportionally less than positive reinforcement. I like a 10:1 ratio – but punishment is often front-loaded so more water squirts come at the beginning of the training. I pick only 1-2 behaviours to use it with so there are viable matrices of behaviour to learn along. If you set too many things that are squirt-worthy, the kitty gets confused and won’t get any of the lessons. They many even become sullen and vindictive. The behaviours I most often use it with are counters and kitchen tables. With Merlin, he first met the water bottle for the clawing-the-screen-open behaviour. There are rules for the use of water – never too often, use a negative word with it and the association will stick and the water squirt won’t need to be used for long, two minutes later follow with kindness so the water is the punisher and not you, and consistency, consistency, CONSISTENCY.
Understandably there are those who don’t agree with any form of negative reinforcement. I do. I have loved Skinners behaviorism since I was first introduced to it as a 17 year old. That’s not why I use it. I use it because mothers and family groups of any species use negative reinforcement to direct cubs into acceptable social behaviours. Mother cats often gently swat an over-rambunctious-play-aggressive kitten. We’re not cats; we can’t swat them because they will read it as attack or an invitation to more aggressive play. Instead there’s the water bottle – paired with the word ‘no’. Negative reinforcement trains most brains much quicker and more deeply than positive reinforcement. We’re all wired that way to keep us out of harms way – once we’ve encountered a danger the reinforcement ensures we avoid it a second time. It’s basic survival instinct in all animals. Therefore negative reinforcement is for the most negative behaviours – the ones that could endanger the cat or the ones which positive reinforcement has failed to remove. Do your research – do what’s right for you!
Do you have a cat from hell? I doubt it. But I’ll bet there are some behaviours you’d like to change or some tricks you’d like to learn. That’s the thing – good television like this can genuinely teach us. It can lead us to new discoveries. Better ways of doing things. We can all learn more about our fabulous felines!
I’ve set my PVR to record the one hour a week of that Galaxy far far away. I’ll be tuning in to meet kitties who are just misunderstood. I hope you too can tune in. (And I gave my kitties a long lecture about how lucky they are to have me… they looked bored and I’m sure summoned their mothership.)