Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Training Toby

Toby is HAWS official shelter cat.  We decided to keep him last spring when it became apparent that he had a chronic upper respiratory condition and felt that he would be difficult to place because of it.  Besides, we kind of liked having Toby around.  He's very friendly, entertaining and our staff and volunteers feel a great deal of affection for him.

From Toby's point of view being HAWS shelter cat is a good deal.  He gets to watch the adoptable rodents, get attention from dozens of people each day, has fun running around the building, and finds all sorts of ways to get himself into trouble.  Trouble usually means finding things to eat, which now that he's a whopping 17 pounds means that he's officially on a strict diet.  On the plus side all the staff has been instructed to play with him more frequently so that he gets more exercise.  The number of Toby designated laser pointers and fishing pole toys scattered around the building is amazing!

When HAWS officially decided to keep him I had it at the back of my mind that he would also make an excellent education cat.  With his outgoing personality he will be great at visiting schools and other facilities.  I knew, however, that there would be some skills that Toby would need in order for this to be as stress free as possible.

The skills I had in mind were to go in a crate on cue, come when called, and walk on a harness. And that meant I'd need to train him to do these things.  I'm a dog trainer, and haven't ever trained a cat, but I was up for the challenge.

Our training program started last month, and I ended up deciding against the harness training because I'm not sure it will be necessary.  He has such a great recall and his visits will all be inside.  

A few things I've learned about training cats.

1) Keep the sessions short.   Initially I had Toby's attention for about 30 seconds.  Now we can do sessions as long as 3 minutes, but past that and he'd just plain done.

2) Find what they love, and use that as a reinforcer.  Toby loves food and that's what I was originally going to use for all his behaviors.  But I discovered that while tuna worked great for teaching him to go into his crate on cue, he wasn't interested in coming for tuna when I called him to come.  For that he would much rather have play time.  So I carry around a laser pointer so that I can reinforce him when he comes when I call him.  (Other staff have started doing the same that he'll come no matter who calls him.)

3) They will surprise you.  I had really thought it would be hard to get Toby to go into a crate on cue, but I had him willingly going in after just 2 training sessions.  The hard part was getting him to come out of it once he's made himself comfortable.

Here's a video of today's training session.

First Section:  I called Toby to come to me, and his reward is getting the chase the laser light for a few seconds.

Second section:  Not only am I asking him to go in the crate, but I've conditioned him to not be concerned when the door closes, and we're just starting to work on my picking the crate up.  This will be important if he's going to enjoy going to schools because I'll be carrying him to and from the car.

Third Section:  I'm working on teaching him to weave through my legs.  I figure people will be amazed if Toby knows a few tricks, and it will be a great way to demonstrate that any animal can be trained!