The Mind of Your Cat: 05/03

Question: Our cat pesters us and leads one of us to her food – not for food, but to watch her eat. She even wakes one of us up to watch her eat. And we understand our cat isnt the only one who does this. What gives?

Answer: There are two ways of looking at this dilemma. On the one hand, your cat is a wonderful trainer. She has selected appropriate cues in order to shape your behavior. Now, your response to her signal is reliable. She has taught you the behavior that she expects of you when she presents you with these cues.

On the other hand, you also deserve congratulations for being such skilled trainers. Some people insist that cats are very difficult to train. Yet you have taught your cat to perform a series of behaviors. Using your proximity as a reward, you have taught your cat to call to you in a specific, and rather sophisticated, context.

What steps might a cat follow in order to teach her humans to perform certain behaviors? Carmine the Cat can answer that question.

Hey folks, Carmine here. My human companions are great. They have always been attentive to my every need. Except for one, that is. You see, I noticed years ago that my humans dined together almost every night. Yet my dish was tucked in a kitchen corner, far from the family gathering site. An oversight, I am quite sure. My family just did not know that, as a social creature, I too wanted some company while I ate my meal. I began to wonder how I could arrange for a dinner companion.

As my strategy was so successful, I will share some details of my technique.
I began with the tried and true meow. That simple sound invariably elicited a response such as good kitty. Of course, I always rewarded my people with a chirp or a leg rub.

Next, upon hearing the expected good kitty, I began to add just one more meow. Wouldnt you know it, I elicited a new response. Yes indeed, upon hearing that second meow, my human friends would inquire, whats wrong? With just two simple commands, I could produce two reliable responses!

Now that I had their attention, after uttering the second meow I would walk a few steps in the direction of my food dish. Behold, my people followed. I then proceeded to test the meow/step command in several locations. As in, meow, meow, walk a few steps away and then stop. Sure enough, along came my people to be sure that I was okay. Piece of catnip, er, cake.

Next, my family needed to learn that meow/step meant lets go to the food dish. So, at various times of the day, I cried meow, meow, then headed for my dish.

My person would examine the food, gently shaking the dish to be sure that the contents were fresh enough. (Sometimes, a bit more food would be added to the bowl.) I paid little attention to these well-meaning responses. I might eat a nibble or two in order to reward the person for having approached the dish.

But the approach was only a part of the desired response. My humans also needed to learn to remain by the dish until I was through eating, at least for the moment. To teach this behavior, each time my person walked away, I would leave my food. After a moment, I would repeat the calling sequence, meow, meow, step. We would return to the dish, and I would eat. The cycle was repeated as needed.

Being humans, they quickly learned the precise behavior that I expected of them. They realized that the food was fresh and abundant, yet I would still not eat. They correctly concluded that I would eat only when they remained in the area.

In the course of my training, I did discover that when my people were very preoccupied – and particularly when they were sleeping in bed – their responses were somewhat sluggish. Two or three meows were rarely enough to produce the desired response. When three didnt work, I tried six. When six cries were ignored, I increased the volume. Now, just one meow will do it! If not, back to the trigger that was sure to elicit the desired response: Just one or two sessions of high intensity, multiple meows and my people are back on track. Mission accomplished.

Side Two: What Have I Done?
Credit is in order for your accomplishment. Not everyone can teach a cat to signal. How did you do it? Most likely, you began by occasionally allowing your cats dish to run low. When she sat by her dish and meowed, you rewarded her by filling the dish. Once she had learned to meow for food, you ignored the single meow, coming to her only when she meowed twice, then three times.

For the next – more challenging – step, you probably ignored any meows that occurred near the dish. Instead, your cat received her food reward only if she left her dish kitchen and came directly to you before meowing. Your cat learned to call you. She also learned that your proximity indicated that delicious food was available. Now she would produce the signal even when her dish was full.

To fine tune the behavior, you needed to teach your cat that shed be most likely to receive food if she signaled to you while you were otherwise engaged, perhaps sleeping. Two steps were required for you to accomplish this task. First, when you were awake, you probably rewarded a meow with a mere good kitty. When you were resting, however, you waited for a clear, intense signal, then rewarded this polished behavior by joining kitty in the kitchen, remaining there until she was satisfied.

Voila, a cat that calls.