Old cats learn new tricks

Yes, even cats can learn new tricks and clicker training can help.  Historically clickers have been used to train a wide variety of animals such as porpoises, zoo animals, dogs, children, so why not cats.  And they can be purchased at any pet store for roughly $1-2.

All you need is a little patience and smelly treats — cut into pea-sized bits — to whet your cat’s appetite.

1) Start with a behavior that your cat does automatically such as sitting.

2) Hold the treat above your cat’s nose. When she starts to lower her bum, say “sit,” then click and reward.  It’s just that simple.

2)  Or use this operant conditioning to reward your cat when he’s doing something you like such as using his scratching post. The same principle applies.  When he starts to scratch, click and treat.  And once your cat begins to associate “clicks” with food, he will choose behaviors that are “click worthy.”

3) Lastly, always use clicker training for positive reinforcement.  The end result with be a greater bond between the two of you.

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How to find a missing cat

If you have reason to suspect that your cat is lost (and not just hiding),  here are a few important tips.  According to an feline expert, who used to do search and rescue work with the California police, most cats are found within a 3-5 house radius of where they live.

While outdoor cats are likely to be farther afield, indoor kitties will probably be hiding near your house. Or, they may have taken refuge in a neighbor’s backyard, garage, basement, crawl space, etc.  And don’t be surprised if she doesn’t respond when you call.  She may be too frightened to move;  instinct tells her that it’s safer to be quiet — as not to attract predators.

But don’t give up.  Put up posters. Offer a reward.  Although it may seem logical to call local animal shelters, it’s more likely that a dog will have been picked up than a cat. One of my friends lost Toby for two weeks.  Thanks to a poster, and a call from a stranger who spotted him, the two were reunited.

Some experts recommend using a humane trap, baited with tuna fish or other delicious food, and baby monitor. If you go that route, be sure to check the trap often and don’t be surprised if another animal is inside.

Fortunately many cats will come out of hiding in 5 to 10 days motivated by hunger and thirst.  When one of my clients moved cross country, Mimi escaped.  Jennifer had almost given up hope.  But I encouraged her to drive back to the neighborhood where she had last seen her.   And seventeen days later, she found her precious Mimi.

Lastly, here is an excellent website for owners of missing cats: http://www.katalbrecht.com/faq.php

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Where’s Kitty?

I was enjoying the view from my garden, when a young woman approached me.  I noticed that she had kitty treats in hand.  “Did you see a suspicious person walk by?” she inquired.  When prodded, she said that her cat was missing.   Moreover, she thought that someone might have stolen Bao out of the first floor window.  As she narrated her tale — how she had come to the US to study and was returning to China with Bao — she became very agitated and started to cry.  I hugged her and said, “Let’s go and find her.”

I’m certainly not a sleuth. But when I plied her with specific questions, I deduced that kitty was still in her apartment. I said, “I’ll bet that kitty is hiding in a drawer or closet, some small space where she feels safe and secure.” “How do you know?” she asked.  “Because I’ve been in the same situation countless times,” I answered.

Apparently the woman didn’t believe me because a few minutes later I saw a police cruiser come to a halt in front of her apartment.  After they left, she continued her search.  But about an hour later, she came back with great news.  “I found my cat and I thought you’d want to know.”

“I’m so happy for you,” I replied.  “Where was she?, I asked. “In a drawer!” she replied.  Cats certainly wander off  all the time.  That said… if logic tells you that it’s improbable,   look closely in every imaginable hiding place you can think of: crawl spaces in your home, bureau drawers, closets, washers and dryers, basement areas, etc.  And bring along some kitty treats to sweeten the deal.

Next time, how to find kitty if she has wandered off.

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Quiet dogs get treats

One of my clients, Muffin, used to bark a lot on our walks.  She’d bark when trucks (UPS or FedEx) drove by.  Or she’d bark when approaching larger dogs.  I knew it was fear based but some times she frightened people.  When the postal carrier shouted at me in Chinese, I knew I had to take swift action.

So first I consulted with her mom.  I wanted to make her aware of the problem and get any suggestions she might have.  Then I went to Ms. Google who also provided some good advice.  And the combination worked.

Now when my little Muffin is about to bark (and I can usually tell), I say, “uh uh no bark.” And the instant she stops she gets a “good girl” and treat.  That way she’s being rewarded for appropriate behavior. Clicker training would also be ideal in this situation.  And instead of tightening up on the leash, which makes her more apprehensive, I relax my grip.

Hard to believe but within days, Muffin was a more confident and calmer dog.  She still barks when she sees her boyfriend but now we reserve it for special occasions.

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Pet therapy

In a recent conversation with my brother, I learned how his German Shorthaired Pointer had become a therapy dog.  As I mulled it over, one of my clients — who is a very special dog — came to mind.  Raymond is a 14-year old Labrador Retriever.  He is very affectionate, highly sociable with strangers (and children), calm in most situations, gentle and well mannered. When I raised the subject with his owner, she said, “Great idea.  Let me know how I can help.”

I began the process by calling the local senior center.   No good. They require that any dog working in their facility be certified as a therapy dog.   I was reluctant to put Ray through a lengthy process due to his advanced age. Besides, after walking him for seven years, I knew he’d be perfect for the job.

To my relief, few skilled nursing/rehab facilities in the area had specific qualifications.  Of course, they would want to meet Ray. But I knew he’d pass any interview process with flying colors. And just as I anticipated, he greeted every resident enthusiastically and calmly, allowing individuals in wheelchairs to pet him.  One family member even inquired whether Ray could pay a one-on-one visit to her brother’s room.

I can’t say whether this is typical, but Ray seemed to know what his role was the moment we arrived. He definitely has the makings of a great therapy dog.  When our time was up, and we walked back to my car, I said, “Buddy, did you have a good time?”   “Woof,” he barked.  And while I can’t speak for him, I know I felt better.

For more information about what it means to be a therapy dog, check out this helpful link:


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Howling to beat the band

I was walking one of my clients, a small black and white dog, when we ran into a special friend of hers, a contractor who lives in the neighborhood. I’m not sure what precipitated their duet, but he started to howl.  And not to be outdone, little Chloe joined in.

One expert explained howling as a  response to certain sounds or “triggers” deeply embedded in the dog’s ancestral makeup. But howling may have also functioned like a relay system carrying long-distance messages from one canid to another.

Everyone has his favorite story to share. Some dogs howl when they hear high pitched noises or shrill sounds — sirens, musical instruments, or crooning, and many dogs (according to YouTube) appreciate the musical intro to “Law and Order.”  And just like barking, howling can be contagious. When one dog in the neighborhood starts, others may chime in.

While some advice columnists attribute howling to separation anxiety, fear or pain, I think my little canine friend is just expressing something very primal and joyful that harkens back to her ancestors.

That said, if your dog’s howling is attracting unwarranted attention and complaints from neighbors, here are some helpful links:



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If only dogs could talk…

I was recently sitting on the subway across from a man who was staring at me intently. His gaze made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few minutes, I got up and moved to another seat.

Body language speaks volumes and our dogs (and cats) constantly pick up visual cues from us (and other animals) in order to predict our intention towards them. Patricia McConnell, PhD begins The Other End of the Leash with a chilling tale of how body language — even subtle changes in position and eye contact — can make a profound difference in how dogs respond to us.   If you want real insight into how dogs think, this is a superb primer from a well known behaviorist.

And with the new year upon us, what better time to revisit dog-human communication and behavior.  Some of my favorite books include:

  • The Well-Adjusted Dog: 7 Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend by Dr. Nicholas Dodman
  • The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs by Dr. Nicholas Dodman
  • If Only They Could Speak: Stories about Pets and Their People by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.
  • As you can probably tell, I’m a big Dodman fan. I interviewed him a few times when I was writing articles for the Tufts Veterinary School newsletter and he’s really top notch.  He not only brings a veterinary background to bear, but is director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.  That’s a mouthful, I know, but that’s his correct title.

And last but not least:

  • How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication by Stanley Coren; and
  • Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Ramond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.

All of these are excellent resources and will help you to better understand our four-footed friends.

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