Meet my cat Josh posing with his carrier.
Sometimes Josh goes in it, sometimes on it. The choice is his.
Josh doesn’t know any different. This is because the carrier stays out in our house; we don’t often put it away. It’s part of the normal landscape, allowing Josh to go in or on as he pleases. For Josh the cat, carriers are no biggie.
Which of course defies all stereotypes of cats and carriers. Bring out the carrier, goes the age-old tale, and the cat will run for the hills—or under the bed or to the top of the shelf. But using learning and training techniques that work across the animal kingdom, cats can come to enter carriers on their own, without force or manhandling. These are the same techniques used to train a dog, or with animals at the zoo needing basic husbandry and vet care, or when a person tries to improve their golf swing. Essentially, the process is about a dog, hyena, or person doing whatever it is that they want to do, and then you mark the behaviors that you want to see more of and ignoring everything else. That's it.
See for yourself. In three short videos, Herbie the cat learns to want to enter a carrier. Why would Herbie do this? Because Dr. Sarah Ellis (@sarahlhellis), one of the authors of The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, uses a technique that gives Herbie the impression that his behavior (entering the carrier) produces food and attention from Ellis (two things Herbie likes very much). By breaking the process into a few short steps, Herbie discovers that carriers are not devilish caverns of doom, but pleasant places where he can have good experiences. Each of the following steps is further detailed in How to train your cat to use a cat carrier from International Cat Care (@iCatCare), where Dr. Ellis is the Feline Behaviour Expert.
In another video, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Jacqueline Neilson helps a cat named Bug enter the carrier using the same principles we saw above. We see Bug choose to enter the carrier, and when he does, his behavior is marked with a click, and he gets a treat. Bug learns very quickly that inside the carrier is good. Excellent work, little one.
It’s a shame these videos probably won’t go viral. I wish they would, because giving cats choice and control is good for cats and people. On the cat side, "Difficulties getting cats into their carriers can result in owner reluctance to visit the vets, which can consequently lead to reduced preventative healthcare, delayed diagnosis of disease, and ultimately reduced quality of life," highlights International Cat Care. Veterinarians acknowledge this challenge and are lending a hand. Fear Free, a new initiative from Dr. Marty Becker (@DrMartyBecker), inspires veterinarians to decrease fear, anxiety, and stress in the vet clinic to improve patient procedures and enhance recovery.
On the human side, using force can have unintended outcomes. Studies find that punishment-based training techniques can be associated with behavior issues involving fear and aggression. And people can also get hurt. A 2010 study found that during natural disasters, the top trauma complaints at medical facilities were bites from domestic animals, typically dogs or cats known to the person. When a storm rolls in, and a panicked person tries to shove a cat into a carrier, accidents happen. Introducing beloved pets, both dogs and cats, to carriers before disaster strikes can help everyone.
Cat learning and training isn’t exactly slow as molasses, but it’s not always far off. At the same time, training doesn’t involve a huge time investment. It’s about short sessions, a couple of minutes here and there, maybe every other day or so. It’s not intended to be onerous—simply one of the things you do with your cat during the week. "It’s a little bit of patience, which is probably the hardest part," Dr. Neilson acknowledges in her video. Patience that’s well worth the reward!
Your turn, dog lovers. I mentioned that the above techniques apply across the animal kingdom, so how might you use these techniques with a dog?
This post is part of the ‘Train for Rewards Blog Party’ started by Dr. Zazie Todd (@CompAnimalPsych) of the Companion Animal Psychology blog. On June 16, 2017, check out her blog for all participating posts, many of which will probably cover dogs. And anyone can follow along on Twitter: #Train4Rewards.
Last year I contributed to the ‘Train for Rewards Blog Party’ with the post, Cats Would Like You to Know They Are Open to Training. A year later, my couch remains scratch-free and is looking good.
Blackwell et al. 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3, 207–217.
Fogel et al. 2010. Evaluating the Efficacy of TAGteach as a Training Strategy for Teaching a Golf Swing. Journal of Behavioral Health and Medicine, 1, 25–41.
Hiby et al. 2004. Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13, 63–69.
Warner GS. 2010. Increased incidence of domestic animal bites following a disaster due to natural hazards. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 25, 188–190.