Taming a Wild Cat

The story of clicker training a crazy kitty
By Darlene Oleksik

The story begins just days before Halloween 2004. I took my niece and nephews to get pumpkins for carving. We went to an orchard were they had all sorts of wonderful fall produce and … one last, lonely, little kitten. Well, long story short, I am sure you can guess what happened. Before I knew it, I had that sickly, 5-week-old, little pile of fluff in a box on my smiling niece's lap, driving for home and berating myself the entire way for being a king-sized sucker.

That poor little kitten had to be bottle-fed for 4 days and taught to use the litter box. He required a few very expensive vet visits and many types of medicine. However, after a couple of weeks of good nutrition, a warm and comfortable home and the miracle of antibiotics, he was much better, thriving in fact. And that is when the transformation occurred. I discovered that I no longer had a sad, sweet, snuggly kitty, but some sort of feral, wild cat.

"Jack" went from sleeping soundly on my lap for hours to running like a maniac up and down my curtains, terrorizing my 12 year-old cat and chasing the tail of my 80 lb. Doberman/Lab mix. However, his favorite past time seemed to be viciously attacking me when I walked by, tried to pick him up, hold or even pet him. I was shocked! I had saved this adorable, tiny fuzzball from a horrible fate and he had the nerve to bite the hands that fed him? Evidently, yes and numerous times I might add! I had to achieve some sort of peace in my household and knew that de-clawing was NOT an option. Training was the way… but how does one train a cat?

I sought help from various sources… the vet, the internet, various books, etc. The info all pretty much said that either he will grow out of it or just keep your distance when he was in a "mood," what I called the "Jack Attacks." I was at my wits end, covered with scratches and bites from elbows to finger tips. When I was picking up my dog from Trainers Academy, LLC Daycare one day, I talked with Class Instructors Lisa and Devene about the idea of trying to clickertrain the little monster. They informed me that the methods of clicker and positive reinforcement training are applicable to many species. It worked amazingly with my dog. Why not give it a try?

So, I prepared to start "taming the beast." I reviewed all my handouts from Puppy class to brush up on exercises and techniques. I discovered that Jack was indeed food motivated for kitty treats but also for "jackpots" or super rewards like turkey. Just like puppy class, I separated his behavior issues into specific areas to overcome such as touching tolerance, handling tolerance, impulse
control (no random attacking) and counter surfing. I determined what exercises would assist me in overcoming each behavior issue. I acquired a new clicker with a plastic tone that was different from the clicker I used for my dog, a more metallic tone, so as not confuse training sessions between animals within the household.

And so it began. I started with basic touching tolerance and set up "ambush" sessions with Jack. I used the same theory of the "object exchange" exercise taught in Puppy Class with some modification. I approached Jack when he was otherwise engaged, like when he was sleeping or lounging on his kitty climber or playing with a toy. I reached out, subtly touched him and "clicked," treated and walked away. Pretty soon, he was beginning to recognize my approach is something good, not threatening. Quickly, I worked my way up to 3 or 4 strokes under his chin with no attacks or running away.

I also had to work with Jack on being handled and held. When I picked him up, he tried everything in his arsenal to get away: growling, snarling, scratching and biting. Though my forearms were constantly scratched, red and full of band-aids from his abuse, I was not deterred. I made certain that the "improper" use of his mouth did not get him what he wanted, his release. To overcome this behavior, I wore heavy sweatshirts with thick, long sleeves and used a modified version the "Sittle." This exercise requires that the animal be gently restrained, insures they cannot use "improper" behaviors to achieve release (i.e. struggling, growling, biting, snapping, etc.). Puppies are put only into a "sit-like" position between the legs of the handler and held gently around their chests in this position until struggle ceases, never any other position. The difference between Puppy Class and what I did with Jack is that I held him like a baby, which is the only way I could hang on to him (again not recommended for any dogs). As soon as Jack stopped growling and trying to bite, I released him, which was most of the time. However, sometimes, his struggle and frustration intensified.  It was at these times that I opted for one of two behaviors: "yield" or "timeout."

The "Yield" behavior was a "signal" for Jack to tell me, without launching into a full-on assault, that he was agitated and wanted to be put down. I crafted the signal by offering the only appendage I had available (that was not holding a struggling cat), my nose. I stuck my face into the fray and let's just say I was "unsuccessful" on many occasions. OUCH! I tried to give that "peace offering cue" (i.e. my nose) BEFORE he got to the "attack" stage. Eventually, he learned that if he "kissed" my nose, he was saying "let me go" and I immediately complied. No harm, no foul. In this instance, his freedom from being held was the reward, so no clicking and treating was necessary. Good thing, because I didn't have a spare hand to do it any way. This "kissing" my nose behavior carried over into the touching tolerance area as well. I was able to pet Jack and when he grabbed my hand and licked, that was my signal from him that he had enough I should stop.

The "Timeout" was a consequence I implemented as a result of not "yielding." I utilized my old puppy cage for "kitty-cat timeout." When Jack got over stimulated and was in the throes of an all- out "Jack Attack" that involved a scratching, hissing, biting beast, I calmly and quietly scooped him up holding him the baby position, put him in the puppy cage for approximately 30 seconds and left the room, shutting the door behind me. This exercise is a modification of the "puppy timeout" that helps decrease unwanted social behaviors, like hard-mouthing from pups.  When puppies are launching themselves at you and biting your pant legs, etc. it has been recommended that you take the puppy's leash, hook it on a door knob and then leave the room (i.e. remove yourself from the situation and as the target for the puppy's crazy behavior) for a number of seconds. The social isolation the puppy experiences helps to modify his behavior, in essence telling him that "we don't play that way" and "that behavior will end play time, every time." The main difference here is the use of the crate. The kitten does not regularly spend quality time in the crate, so it can be used as a "timeout space." Puppies are regularly crated for a variety of reasons including safety and training. Crates should be their "sanctuary" and not used for "timeouts" to insure no negative feelings develop about this space.  This "kitty-cat timeout" worked rather quickly and I soon cut out the crate time-out all together. He learned the "Yield" signal and gave out the "kisses" and the handling or holding stopped before he ever got over stimulated and agitated. Thus no more "Jack Attacks."

I also had a problem with Jack climbing on my kitchen table and counters (i.e. counter surfing). I don't know about you, but in my house, cat behinds do not belong where people food resides. The problem is that Jack is a cat that needs to perch on tall/high areas, good vantage points for surveying his domain. Despite my "rules," in his view, the table and counters were perfect locations. Thus, the next challenge.

I did my best to prevent him even making it to the counters, gently shooed him down when necessary, but more importantly rewarded (clicked and treated) his position on a compromise location, my Baker's rack. It was tall enough for him to see what I was doing while working at the counter or eating at the table, but was away from the counters and table and any sort of people food areas. Jack learned that keeping off the other areas benefits him and the Baker's rack is the pay-off location for treats and the ability to survey the happenings in the kitchen. Now, Jack can found perched on his "spot" when I am busy cooking. Also, he can be found waiting patiently in it every time he notices I am getting ready to leave. He and the dog each get their treats (in their spots – the Baker's rack and the rug) as I head out the door.

So, to sum up my exhausting story… My long, hard fought battle with a 6 lb. kitty has reaped fantastic rewards. Clicker training, the "click and reward" method, allowed me to build trust and communicate with this somewhat feral little feline. It helped us find the common ground, understanding and companionship between all creatures big and small needed to peaceably reside together.

I have to say, I was a skeptic about clicker training when I rescued my dog. But I gave it a shot. After going through classes at Trainers Academy and seeing the amazing progress with my pup, I was truly converted. Now, after using the same methods to train a crazy kitty and seeing the same fantastic achievements first-hand, I am not just a convert, I am one of biggest "Clicker Training" cheerleaders around. So, do not fear issues with your pups, if a feral kitty can
do it, you and your dog can too!