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