::Click:: Seeing the Boys in a New Light

It’s been an eon since I last posted. Since then, it feels like the Earth has shifted in its orbit and I along with it.

The new orbit turns around clicker-training.

When Bugsy arrived around six years ago, at a friend’s suggestion I bought a clever little clicker-book to teach cats parlor-tricks. I was sorry I ever saw the durn thing. Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks” comes to mind, especially one item entitled “Bitey the hamster loves to go bowling.”

Maybe it took bowling for unfortunate Bitey to feel the love. I don’t know. I never saw the episode and I don’t care to. These type-things evoke the “dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and all the domestic animals” biblical darkness and zoos and down-at-heels carnies and animal testing and let us simply not go there. At all.

This clicker-training is orders of magnitude different.

How about a before-and-after. I have no videos of any of this with my boys, so please take me at my word and I will simply intersperse with aesthetic moments of them looking cute and gorgeous as usual. Later in this post I will provide some links for you to watch the clicker pros in action, training cats and horses.

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Before clicker, Bugsy often seemed anxious and ill at ease. He was spraying all over the place. He has hair-ball issues and he would squawk the house down every time I tried to brush him. Heaven forbid we should have to go to the V-E-T, as getting Bugsy into the C-R-A-T-E meant him bolting under the bed. I nailed the bed-base shut but there was still the problem, come vet-day, of Bugs fighting like a mad-cat, howling all the way to perdition.

Now, post-clicker, Bugs appears generally less anxious. He is spraying much less, as we have solved the medical issue in the meantime and it seems, with clicker-training, that he may have found other, more-constructive ways to express himself. Now he jumps up into my lap for brushing, at my signal, and he sits there purring quietly as I remove wads and handfuls of fur from him daily.

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As for the C-R-A-T-E, no further spelling-out is necessary. We haven’t got to the point of going to the V-E-T yet, as we’re still doing practice runs to the front door and back for now. But let me just say this. One night I got home late. The cats greeted me as usual and then Bugs ran into his crate, whipped around, and stuck his little head out, as if to say, “Look, Ma, what I can do! so how’s about that treat now?,” and here you go, Bugs, and ten or twenty more for good measure.

Bugs now goes into his crate smoothly and voluntarily at my cue, he can stay there with the door open, stay there (purring) with the door shut, with the door open and me not cuing to come out just yet, coming out at my cue, and calmly weathering the crate moving and lifting to the front door and reversing back again.

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Barney, in his turn, has learned how to sit and watch the goings-on without photo-bombing. He can do all that Bugs can do re the crate, plus he can sit-and-stay on a hand-gesture and he can “high-five” with alternate paws for good measure. As for the crate, Barney has progressed to moving out the front door, into the Catio, and sitting in the crate peacefully outside the Catio. I did try carrying him to the car once but he didn’t like that, probably because a neighbor’s tractor started to blurp disgustingly nearby. So we have backed away from the car for the moment and we’ll get there in quieter times.

And with both boys, there is no doubt that they are thinking. I can see Barney’s eyes shifting side-to-side, as he apparently guesses what our next move will be. When Bugsy is in his “sit-stay” in the crate, he bobs his head and points his chin to the floor, where he knows he has trained me to deposit the next treat.

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These are no stupid pet tricks. For one thing, I want the cats as calm as possible going to the vet. For another, I have always worried if the need to emergency-evacuate should ever arise. Now, as the boys are moving toward smooth-and-easy crating and carrying, I have some peace of mind on both points.

As for seeing the cats in a new light: The clicker-training, of the sophisticated kind I now have access to and you will, too, shortly, is on another planet from the stupid-pet-trick book. Now I am guided by skilled, subtle, science-based teachers (see the videos, coming up below). Thanks to them, I now understand this: Clicker-training is a universe away from demeaning animals with stunts that are amusing to humans but have only questionable or no value to the animal. Rather, this is about communicating with the animal’s intelligence. As clicker-founding-mother Karen Pryor says, Reaching Into the Animal Mind.

And that is the different light in which I now see my boys. I now see them as thinking, emotional beings.

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Truly, it is as if the cats have been waiting patiently for the light to dawn on me that they are thinking, emotional beings. The clicker has opened up a very deep connection between us. I now realize that my house-bound boys previously had a tendency to be dull, under-stimulated, bored. This even despite that I had made a whole-hearted project out of designing the house around their needs, playing games with them (e.g., see last post),
feeding them hand-made organic food, talking to them, pestering them with species-specific (i.e., human) hugs, loving them to bits, and all of that. Despite all that, they were not being asked to think, and they needed to think to become more themselves.

And now that I have begun asking them to do what they need to do, in this way, they have revealed themselves as thinking and emotional beings.

I find that incredibly moving.

Orbit-shifting, really. Now my boys are not just Mysterious Cats Dwelling in a Distant Domain of Being-ness, at the altar of which I could only worship helplessly and cult-like. No. Now we are thinking and emotional beings together in this household, and it is like finding one’s self in another world. Through the looking-glass, into a wonderland.


All this came about by serendipity. A friend lives in the country nearby. At the local library she saw a community-newspaper article about an upcoming clicker horse workshop. She knew I adore horses and I had begun to do hands-on Feldenkrais® work with them, and she clipped the article for me.

I looked into the workshop and I was electrified to find that the trainer incorporated Feldenkrais into her work.

And that is how I found Cindy Bennett Martin, the host of the workshop here in Arkansas, and clicker-trainer extraordinaire Alexandra Kurland of upstate New York.

Alex is famous for having trained a miniature horse to be guide for a blind lady. You read that right, really.

Alex is a genius in her own right, and for having grasped and understood Feldenkrais like the real thing that she is (more about that later. Probably much later).

First, though, I want you to see a good video that would have taught me how to clicker-train with the crates, except that I put together what I knew from first watching Alex and Cindy work with the horses – I only found this video as I was preparing this blog. The handler uses verbal reinforcement instead of clicks; clicks are more precise, though, and I will probably have more to say about that later, also probably much later.

Never mind. Many ways up the same mountain. This video is an excellent thoughtful demonstration of what’s involved. Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Ellis and Katzenworld for this.

Before you watch, I just want to say: Notice how high Herbie holds his tail. Happy Herbie. A study notes that in a domestic cat, the tail-up is observed “when an adult individual meets another one and . . . signals the intention to interact amicably.”

Also notice how Dr. Ellis never pushes the cat into the crate, but never!!! Notice, in Part II, how Dr. Ellis calls this a “game.”

OK. Now watch here.

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Next I want to draw your attention to Alex and Cindy at work with horses. The video series in this blog-post of Alex’s was taken at Cindy’s spectacular ranch here in Arkansas, as Alex guides Cindy, a trainer in her own right, in working with Cindy’s gorgeous mare Scout.

There is so much to chew on here that I will leave you to your own devices. I just want to mention a few stand-outs (I have page after page of notes from this single post but I’ll spare you those).

First, as a counter-argument to those who object to clicker-training on grounds that food-treats distract the animal, Alex says, “Once a horse understands that treats come when he shows me good emotional self-control, I can use food as a reinforcer to help teach other things.”

Good emotional control. Absolutely.

And with it, to do this: To teach and to learn in a calm and happy (emotionally controlled) setting. Like here, for example, where Alex says “while it might look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout treats, and that’s how she is getting her to turn, the treats are in fact reinforcers that come after Scout has been clicked for keeping her head away from Cindy . . . .”

It’s about learning. Like this: Dear Scout, don’t crowd Cindy, be calm and in balance. You will be happy when you’re calm and in balance, you see, because you will get reinforced for learning, and this is an excellent and important thing to learn, not to crowd or mug your human. A 1,200-pound mugger is serious business!

And Scout does the equivalent of Herbie high-tail: She bursts into a trot, but still right there alongside Cindy. No dragging, no mugging. See this in Part Six at 5:50.

A happy, polite, amicable animal.

The most beautiful sight on the planet.

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And there’s also this, to make the crucial point that coercion, force, domination, and negative reinforcement are not the way, when it comes to transitioning the horse to follow a lead-rope: “I don’t want my horses to be afraid of the lead or to be worrying about what might happen if they make a mistake. That would poison the cues the lead is giving. If you are using a style of rope handling in which escalating pressure is at times used to enforce behavior, you will undermine the intent and the power of this lesson.”

This video is in just one post from Alex’s blog, where she is hard at work writing her next book. The blog is jam-packed. It’s going to take me many hours of study.

Just glancing quickly at the resources, though, I was gratified to see that Alex has drawn from the work of Jaak Panksepp. More connections. Years ago, inspired by an interview with Panksepp by Ginger Campbell of the excellent Brain Science Podcast (see link to Dr. Campbell in this post of mine), I bought Panksepp’s book, Affective Neuroscience (presents “complex material in a readable manner,” so what does that make me?). The jargon totally defeated me, despite that I am well familiar, in the legal context, with deciphering jargon. Oh no. Not Panksepp. I don’t even know where in the depths of the house I stashed that book, so beyond me it was. Probably donated it to the library. So thank you Alex for drawing on Panksepp, because now I don’t have to. I knew he’d be worth it but I just didn’t have the stomach.

I hope it won’t be this long before my next post, because I sure am looking forward to saying something (probably a great deal) about Alex’s understanding of Feldenkrais and the link between her work, Feldenkrais, and our beloved animals. But I better go feed those beloved animals right now.

In the meantime, here’s the link to Alex’s blog and the Cindy-Scout videos.

Happy tails.

I want these bookends. They’re at the Brooklyn Museum.



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Fun With Toilet Roll

It has been too cold lately for the Catio and so the boys want to know:

What’s Next?

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Barney Squash-Face

toilet-p3 004Bugs: “I abide by window, awaiting developments.”

I found this idea on the Net somewhere.

ONE: Find shoebox.

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TWO: Collect toilet roll and fill box with same.

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THREE: Insert treats.

toilet-p1 003-cropThe dawn of an idea.

toilet-p1 012“What you think?”

toilet-p1 004“I find it good.”

toilet-p1 013The process.

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toilet-p1 027And now, the obligatory seasonal shots.

toilet-p2-spring 004toilet-p2-spring 003Happy Spring.


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The Blues. Before, During, Hopefully After.

Boy, I got ‘em and how. Here are two major elements:

* Several bruising encounters with the American “health-care” system. Make that the American “ill-health brutality” system.

* I am sorely missing my African drum and dance teacher Angelo. He is now in his home country of Côte d’Ivoire for a month, accompanied by students wealthy enough to join him. I am not there, thanks to money troubles among other reasons.

Back in 2005 and 2006, I took two of those trips. The first trip I owe thanks to a generous anonymous benefactor. The second trip was thanks to the mind-boggling disorganization of South African Airways during the first trip, which resulted in them giving three of us free passage for the second. The second trip was even worse than the first, transportation-wise, so I suppose I could have continued claiming another free trip indefinitely – but the screw-ups were so grueling, I lost heart.

Here’s a video a friend and I put together, from the first trip.

So this morning, sunk in the Blues, I came across a video one of my African friends posted on Facebook. I’ve been thinking of our black Americans a lot lately, thanks to events in February Black History Month. I’ve been thinking of how music has been such an important element of how black Americans managed to survive through such unspeakable hardships. The Blues.

The video my friend posted is of Mamadou Diabaté, a genius balafon player from Burkina Faso. That’s near where Angelo and group are right now. This video shows the Africa I saw, in all its stunning beauty of spirit and music.

On Diabaté’s website, I found this, about the Sambla people of whom Diabaté is one:

“Jazz experts find the tonal system particularly interesting as it has close affinities with the ‘Blues’ pentatonic tunings.”

Yet Sambla music pre-dates the Blues.

Connections, undeniable. Ties and connections to Africa. Which we all share. Lest we forget.

*  *  *

And I am thinking of antidotes to the Blues.

Diabaté’s music. How it has come to me sunk in the Blues, from which it all came. Before the Blues, during, and, hopefully, after.

Of how I have just experienced another leap forward in my recovery from my foot injury, when, before this improvement, it seemed possible that I might limp in pain for the rest of my life.

Of dear friends.

Of the cats. Of course. Of course the cats.

Here are cats, followed by a link to the Diabaté video. Which please: Pause in your day, take time to watch and listen. I hope you enjoy. This is world-class. Blues, anti-Blues.

bat4 002-cropBarney

bat3 002-cropBugs, a/k/a “Bougarabou”

And now put your hands together for Mamadou Diabaté.


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Beginnings and Endings

This is not the post I had planned for today, my birthday. But life happens and it also ends. Today news came that a long-time blogger’s rescue cat, Harrison, finally succumbed to a long illness.

Imagine this kitty waiting all day for his person to come home from work, hanging on long enough to get to the vet, and only there yielding to the inevitable, that the little fellow was finally dying.

His person had taken him in first as a foster, ten months ago, at a time, even then, when Harrison’s health was shaky. I smiled when the person posted the decision to keep Harrison, calling it a “Foster Failure.” As I commented then, “best failure I ever heard.”

In this terrible time, when a “yuge” portion of this country has apparently taken leave of its senses, let this be a call-out to those whose open-heartedness, decency, and generosity matter so much more.

At a time like this, the Buddhists point the way to the aspiration. Here is the Great Bell Chant from Thich Nhat Hanh.


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The Catio

Recall that after Bugs’s latest unauthorized walkabout, my good landlord built a screen-porch addition to the house. Around three months ago, nine days after my surgery, I was still too debilitated to get out there to enjoy it, so I showed you what it was like from the inside, only.

Now, thanks to the miracle of healing, I’m off the crutches and while not exactly bounding down the steps, I can manage more-or-less. So here is The Catio from the outside.

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Thanks to the uncanny and frankly somewhat-scary unseasonable warmth, the other day we did get out there to enjoy it. (It was in the ’70’s. In January.)

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Bugs marches forth.

In the distant past I had tried to acclimate Bugs to a harness so we could enjoy outdoors safely. One time he may possibly have enjoyed this but, other than a few ultimately unsuccessful harness forays, he has been outside only AWOL. Each of those latter times he sought refuge in dark underground-type places, so I’m guessing he has pretty much never enjoyed the outside experience. He has been housebound for the 5.5 years we’ve been together. Hitherto happily, it’s been my fond hope.

No longer.

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Did he ever react to outside.

“I show my tongue to you, Outside. You got nothing!”

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No video, so just take my word for this: He roared. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It was like this: YARL, step, ROWR, step, WRACK, sniff, MEEROW, pause, REEROW, etc. etc. etc. Constantly. He did not stop.

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Back indoors, he kept right on with the Hallelujah Chorus. Got on my last nerve. Then he did this to the inside door. Because it’s got too cold now to go back out and . . .

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Bugs begs to differ.

So I’m guessing this time he may have enjoyed himself.

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Barney too. Great climber that he is, up he went.

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“I wonder, can I get up in there?”

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“Maybe I’ll try sideways. This ledge is at least 0.035 inches. Plenty wide.”

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“Well – kind of long way down there.”

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Whereupon he jumped down, all who-knows-how-many-pounds-of-him, onto the stone step. Ouch. When he does this inside the house, I have fixed the furniture so he has a soft landing. Not so outside. He seemed to manage fine, but next time I’m going to put a mat down there.

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Back inside. Double-cushioned.


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Spring Fever in January

It’s January 31st. At not yet 9:00 in the morning, it’s 56º F. It’s predicted to go up to 63º today. It’s been like that for days.

In January 2014, I was driving icy roads to get Barney to surgery. In December 2013, it went from the ’70’s one day to 12º the next and nearly a foot of snow on the ground.

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In January 2011 likewise. It went from 74º one day to frozen solid the next. In February of that year, we were bracing for an ice storm, which we got.

So the weather’s crazy. Why should it be any different inside than out? It seemed right to break out Kim’s Chateau Dryden Special Reserve Nipatini.


Barney kept his head, waiting for the right time to make his move.

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After the obligatory whappy-paws, this happened next.

nip 024-cropBox King

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New Year’s Medical Edition

I have news.

First Bugs’s urinary issues. For some of you this is TMI, but for those of us who are male-cat guardians, it may be a riveting read.

Followers know that we have been struggling with Bugsy’s plumbing for quite some time now. Maybe I should say “feline urologic syndrome” and sound smarter than I am. The struggle has been on-going since May 2015, to be precise, and even that may lack precision, because likely he had trouble longer than that and, in any event, nobody could diagnose exactly what the problem was.

Thankfully we ruled out struvite crystals, blood in the urine, and mucosal blockage, but other than that limited clearance, off we went down a long and winding road. This included a homeopathic consult and five different remedies, over several months, none of which appeared to do much for us other than to cost a lot, both for the treatment and for innumerable OTC pee-strips that kept showing positive one after the next after the next.

In reviewing my notes – I have 39 single-spaced pages of notes and no, as far as I know, I do not locate anywhere on the autism spectrum – I see we tried antibiotics, cranberry, Vitamins C and E, cod liver oil, and the five different homeopathic remedies. Here’s a representative sampling, from a note I wrote to the homeopathic vet on July 9th: “Three weeks into the last remedy you prescribed, Bugs is still testing positive for WBC. He is mostly peeing in the box in a familiar pattern, but his spraying has got worse. For the past five days he has sprayed every day. On one of those days he sprayed twice, and on one of those days he peed in his bed.”

Brings it all back. May it stay back there.

So in October my friend Kim told me about corn silk. This I have been adding to his food in small doses ever since. Last week the vet tested Bugsy’s pee and I rejoice to tell you it came up clean. “Two thumbs up,” the vet said.

So amen and hallelujah.

The secondary thing is the spraying. This has much improved, as Bugs is spraying less in volume and frequency. Still, this vet suggested that I might try smudging with sage, as she has heard a report from a guardian of fourteen cats who has had good luck with that strategy. The vet speculated that maybe the scent of the sage might cover the aroma of Trespass-Kitty and other unauthorized feline visitors around and about.

I doubt this, but then again I have come to doubt most things in this life.

In any case, I keep forgetting to smudge and this morning Bugs sprayed a little, naturally, who says we get to celebrate entirely whole-heartedly. So I may have to try that, if as and when I can remember. I’m not too keen, as it is smoke, after all, and this is a pretty small place I will be fumigating.

But in any case, as I said, the main thing is that the white-blood cells are gone and Bugs apparently no longer has inflammation or infection.

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Soft Bugsy.

Next up, skin issues or allergies or whatever the problem is, once again, nobody seems to know. This problem cropped up two years ago in June and ugly it was then and now. We’ve had the problem intermittently, worse lately. He gets eruptions on his forehead, muzzle, and ear flaps – pinnae, I guess they’re called, if I want to stay sounding smarter than I am. These are like acne but the homeopathic vet informed me that I don’t get to call it acne unless it’s under his chin. Whatever. Looks like acne to me.

Again I have to thank Kim for a pointer to juice up Bugs’s immune system with echinacea tincture. This I add to his food in four drops, two weeks on and two weeks off. There does seem to be a correlation. The spots back off when he’s on and they come back when he’s off. I’d like to get him off soon. He’s on at the moment.

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Barney seems healthy. I’m just now listening to the boys duking it out in the other room. Inevitably it’s Barney who instigates, so I’m glad to say there’s no loss of vigor on Barney’s part.

Medical news for the human? My foot is better. I’m off the crutches and surgical boot, I’m into shoes, and I ride the recumbent bike 4.5 miles a day at the health center. You might not believe how much muscle-mass and function you lose with three months’ inaction. Unless you’ve been through this yourself and my condolences if you have.

This healing and recovery thing seems to advance in small increments. Much like the fur-ball I’ve been collecting. Each I time I groom the cats I add a little more. Here’s the current status, with my old cell-phone to show scale.


Happy New Year. May the growth and healing accumulate for all.


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