The happy ending
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when outside the door,
The soft rumbling could be felt, of eight kitten paws,
"Come Chloe! Come Mia!"—you'd think would be heard,
Yet nothing was spoken, not even a word!
Into their supper, then tucked into bed,
Two kittens were sleeping, and not a word was said.'
Ins and outs
We had recently moved into our new house, taking with us one young retriever and two cats, Chloe and Mia. It was a quiet neighborhood, with little access to native wildlife, except for a booming field mouse population. We decided that the cats could stay outside during the day, so long as they came in at night. We couldn't decide on a suitable location for a cat door, and, truth be told, we had more pressing things to spend the money on.
Each night I would open the kitchen door and call "Chloe, Mia, inside!" Most of the time, I would soon hear the pitter-patter of tiny paws coming down the driveway. Other times, I would have to call again, much louder.
Cats generally don't wander too far from home, but do wander far enough that you might have to call quite loudly to get their attention. In the late evening, I was quite conscious of the noise I subjected my neighbors to, particularly those neighbors with young children tucked into bed by that time. I needed a solution.
In our previous house we had a cat door with a lock that would allow the cats to come inside, but not get back out again—at least in theory. In practice, it didn't take both cats long to learn to put a claw under the flap and pull it back inside, placing their heads under the flap to make an exit. I used to wait until the cats came inside, then I'd lock the flap completely so that it couldn't be opened at all. At least I didn't have to stand outside in the cold night air, waking the neighbors with my calls.
A (silent) whistle will work
This time I decided to condition the cats to a silent whistle. (Here's one example of a silent whistle.) I figured I could blow the whistle as loudly as I liked, and no human ear would hear it. It wouldn't matter how far the cats had traveled within their range; they would be able to hear the cue to come inside loud and clear.
My requirements were simple. I wanted a long-range version of "come when you hear the can opener around dinnertime." If you have an indoor cat and you don't allow free-feeding, you will know how reliably you can teach a cat to come when you open a can, or shake a box of food. I needed to get that same response over a longer distance with a few more distractions. I got lucky; in fact, this turned out to be easier done than said!
One crucial factor to the success of this exercise is what behavior analysts call establishing operations—taking steps to improve the trainee's response to a reinforcer. In this case, we needed hungry cats. At that point, my cats were being fed twice a day, and if they didn't finish a meal, it was left out for them to finish later. It was a simple matter to cut out the morning meal altogether because my wife and I both worked fulltime in those days—we didn't have to deal with the extinction burst of two hungry cats looking for their breakfast!
This change made the cats very available for training in the evening, because they were both keen for their dinner. Conditioning them to the silent whistle was also very easy. I just had to pair the whistle with food.
It would have been a simple matter to blow the whistle before presenting dinner each night, but I sped up the process by repeatedly blowing the whistle and giving a small amount of food each time, just as you would "charge" a clicker. By feeding the cats in the same location each time, and always in the evening, I was able to establish a simple process for the cats to obtain reinforcement. They just had to turn up in the kitchen!
Once we had conditioned a strong response to the whistle, we were able to use the conditioned behavior immediately. I don't recall exactly how long the conditioning took, but it wasn't any more than a few days before both cats were reliably tearing down the driveway and into the kitchen at night when they heard the silent whistle.
But what about indoor cats?
I realize that many of you aren't in a position to keep an outdoor cat, as there are so many environmental risk factors. In fact, the number of places you can have an outdoor cat, while remaining comfortable with the risks, is shrinking daily.
But in some ways, owners of indoor cats will find this way of training a cat to respond even more useful. It is a quick, simple, and very effective way to teach a cat that might find its way outdoors occasionally to come back inside promptly.
There are some "take home" messages in this story that I would like to highlight for all cat owners:
You can never train an animal that doesn't want to work for what you're offering. While every animal needs to eat, your chance of reinforcing responses using food increases in proportion to that animal's hunger at the time you are training. I have found this particularly important with cats. Cats are unlike many dogs that will work for food at any hour, even directly after a big meal! (Note: you can train an animal to respond to cues even when satiated, but you must begin with an animal that is not satiated.)
A lot of cat owners allow their pets free access to food. These cats are virtually impossible to clicker train, unless they are exceedingly gluttonous! The first step in training a cat is to set out a consistent meal schedule, including time of day and appropriate portion size. Special treats aren't usually necessary when training a cat. A portion of their normal meal can be used instead-as long as you have established operations by controlling when and how much the cat eats, and when you train in relation to meals (preferably before meals, or a few hours after the last meal).
Cats keep it simple
I could have trained my cats to come when called just as I would train a dog to come when called. However, my requirements for the cats were very different. I take my dogs many places, and I need them to come when called at any hour of the day. One of my dogs isn't comfortable around other dogs. The other appears to be going deaf with old age. Both get excited about critters when the sun goes down. I need to factor these things into their training.
My cats, on the other hand, don't go far. If I take them somewhere, I keep them locked in a crate. I don't really need them to come whenever or wherever. I only need them to come in the evening, and I was able to schedule their main meal of the day to favor our training requirements.
The little details sorted themselves out because I established operations properly and kept the basic criteria very simple. The cue was clear and consistent, they only had to come to one place every time, the reinforcer was always going to be there as promised, and they really, really wanted the reinforcer every single time.
By stripping back requirements to the bare minimum that was practical, I was able to train two cats simultaneously to do something reliably in just a few days. This is often the case with training cats, and it is one of the joys of training a cat over training a dog.
Unless the Feline Control Council starts sanctioning obedience trials for cats (!), we don't need to worry about whether or not a cat will retrieve the dumbbell in the obedience ring under a tall male judge with facial hair and with a poodle bitch in heat barking outside the ring next to a three-armed child playing the mandolin after a six-hour plane flight from Perth to Sydney and a night in a caravan park because the hotel that said dogs were OK forgot to mention that they only allow small breed dogs...you get the idea!
So enjoy freedom and simplicity this Christmas. Your gift this season is that you will never have to worry about your cat getting lost again!
Teach your cat something fun, pay attention to the basics, and you will both have a good time and a Merry Christmas!