It’s tricky training trick cats.
Cat Minou and La Petite Muffin are working on their opening act. Although at four months of age, Muffin is a bit young for show business, the adorable kitten is learning tricks so quickly, she’ll soon be jumping through hoops like her big pal Cat Minou.
Yup, it’s true — cats are jumping through hoops, sitting, leaping, and touching objects on command as if they were, um, dogs. I actually thought it was against some unwritten code for cats to do anything when asked. But apparently their trainer, Lisa-Marie Guernon of Muzzles and Snouts boarding kennel, is oblivious to proper cat etiquette and she has somehow tricked them into performing for a clicker and treats.
I met Lisa-Marie last year when she worked at our clinic as part of a job training program. With a background in pet dog behaviour and training, she had no experience with cats, but figured they would respond to the same approaches. We went through a few Band-aids on Lisa-Marie and, as I suspected, it was she and not the cats that got the training. Flat ears equals angry cat. Twitchy tail means “stop petting me”.
So, when I ran into the young trainer at the Barks By the Bay event in Trenton last month, imagine my surprise to see pictures of her adopted stray Cat Minou jumping through a hoop. Feeling oddly betrayed by Monsieur Minou for being so uncatlike, I was impressed nonetheless.
At home later, I hunted out a book on cat training someone gave me years ago and tried some of the lessons on our clinic cat Clinck. In no time, he had eaten enough treats to upset his stomach, as he happily sat on the book whenever I wanted to read it and otherwise ignored me. It’s reassuring to know that Clinck is a true cat who won’t learn to sit or jump on command.
Despite my misgivings, there is a growing faction of trainers shifting their concentration from dogs to the blossoming feline pet population – just Google “training cats”. The emphasis seems to be on teaching them to stop unwanted behaviours such as scratching or jumping on counters, however, there is a lot of material on “trick” training also.
My favourite, called the Touch, is one Lisa-Marie has taught to La Petite Muffin. It’s a simple behaviour requiring the cat to touch an object chosen by the trainer. According to Lisa-Marie, the trick is being taught to groups of shelter cats in the United States. The homeless kitties are trained to reach through their cages and tap visitors with their paws, effectively putting the Touch on people to adopt them, because who could resist? Now that’s a trick worth learning even for a cat.
Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital