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Clicker training has been around for over half century. B.F. Skinner discovered its underlying principles in the 1940’s and used a clicker publicly as a marker with a dog in the 1950’s. Within ten years, dolphin trainers began to use whistles for the same purpose, that of cuing animals with sound to perform desired behaviors. In the 1970s, clicker training gained popularity with pet owners, when animal trainers Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes started giving clicker training seminars to dog owners. After that, in 1998, Alexandra Kurland published Clicker Training for Your Horse. This text led to the publication of training books for other companion animals including cats. What follows are the highlights of my attempts to teach our three cats clicker training, a feat that has perhaps educated me as much or more than it has them.

Day 1: I picked targeting for my first training technique. Targeting is considered a versatile training aid in which animals practice touching a target for a click and a treat. In addition, targeting is also considered the easiest behavior for novice clicker trainers to learn. For these reasons, targeting seemed the ideal place to start. To teach targeting, I used a target stick and canned chicken. Then I followed these steps:

  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats looked at the target stick.
  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats touched the target stick.

Two of our cats immediately figured out that looking at and later touching the target stick earned them treats. Our third cat wanted nothing to do with the target; instead she tried to figure out where I had placed the treats, so that she could go straight for the prize.

As for me, I struggled with two challenges. First, trying to retrieve meat with the same hand that I held the clicker slowed my response time. Second, I found it cumbersome trying to avoid dripping chicken juices onto our carpet.

Day 2: Undaunted, I refined my training technique. Instead of using canned meat, I switched to deli meat that I could more easily grab. I also began using my left hand instead of my right to retrieve the meat. Both changes speeded up my delivery of incentives. But now I had a new challenge. Apparently, I’d trained two of my cats so well that they expected treats from my right hand, and they refused to believe that I might use my left hand.

Day 5: After a few days of lackluster clicker training, I decided to consult my husband, who has trained our dog for almost ten years in agility. He asked three questions, all of which caused me to think.

  • What command do you want to use?
  • How do you want the cats to touch the target?
  • What is your end goal?

We decided that I could stick with the command “Touch,” the cats should touch the target with their nose (not their head, cheek, or tail), and the first goal was for them to sit in an assigned spot. If I could achieve this goal, the cats would be less underfoot during meal preparation. Eventually, I could also modify this goal, so that the cats would retreat to their crate. After this goal is achieved, the next will be to send them to a crate in the case of an emergency. Clicker training could someday save their lives!

After our discussion, Andy took on the role of handing out treats. In doing so, we figured out yet another way to refine my training technique. Instead of handing the meat to the cats to reward them, he placed the meat on the target. Now the cats would not just connect the clicker with a treat, but they’d also connect the target with a treat. The cats showed their appreciation with a flawless performance!

Week 2: I moved on to the next step in targeting: changing the position of the target after each success. Each time my cats touched the stick, I clicked and treated. Initially, the higher or lower I moved the target, the more confused were the cats. Rainy even at one point rolled on the ground, as if looking cute would earn her a treat. With practice, I found it helped if I made sure that the cats were watching the stick as I moved it. Interestingly, two of them had no trouble following the stick when I moved it to the left or the right. Our third cat, however, made it clear that she wasn’t going to move far for a reward.

For the rest of week two, I continued to change the position of the target after each success. The cats showed more and more focus, until near the end of the week when I moved our training session to a different time. Normally, we head to the basement right after lunch, but that day I had other commitments, and it was nearly suppertime before we started our session. Big mistake! Cinder’s tail twitched and she persistently meowed, while Rainy rubbed her head against me and purred. Neither of them could concentrate. Not even the juiciest meat could tantalize them. Their minds were firmly fixated on supper! Only Bootsie complied.

Week 3: I moved closer to my end goal, using the target stick to direct the cats to an assigned spot. As with previous attempts, the first attempts had a low success rate. Cinder twirled multiple times before she’d follow the target stick, while Rainy wandered this way and that before she’d follow the target stick. As we continued to practice, they began to dawdle less and moved to their assigned spot more quickly.

In contrast, Bootsie became more reluctant. I was puzzled by her behavior. When I held the target stick in front of her, she’d gladly touch it with her nose and accept her reward. But when I moved the target stick to the left or right, which would require her to move to touch it, she stared at me as if that action would take too much effort. One reason for this might be that I can only reward her with prescription food, due to her food intolerance, and so she may not as highly motivated as the other two cats. On the other hand, if I forget to take the food with me when I leave the room I always find it gone upon my return, so obviously she likes it. Another factor could be her feral background. While she has adjusted to domestic life is many regards, she remains wary of new situations. Maybe the farther away I move the target, the more suspicious she is of trickery.

One of the leaders in clicker training, Karen Pryor, has described clicker training as “a clear form of communication that combined with positive reinforcement is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.” After three weeks of clicker training, I’ve decided to take each cat at their own speed. With Cinder and Rainy, I’m mixing up their training by using the target stick to lure them through obstacles on an agility course, which is not only teaching them obedience but is also rewarding them with fun. As for Bootsie, I’m simply trying to get her to take one or two or three more steps to the left or right each day, with the realization that in doing so I’m building trust. And, ultimately, trust is the foundation for any training routine.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.


Agility at home! Guests for a week! A breakthrough in a behavior problem! September was a month of upheaval for our family. It started with us buying and moving into our first house, and finally having space to set up an agility course at home. After that, my parents came to visit for a week, which provided all the pets with lots of socialization opportunities. Finally, seizing the opportunity to start anew, I tried once again to keep Rainy off the counter tops, and this time might have found a long-term solution.

Back in February of this year, I wrote an article called Cat Agility, where I shared my attempts to replicate an obstacle course at home. At the time, the biggest hindrances were space and cost. Regarding space, I even posted questions to a Facebook agility group, asking members: “Where does everyone practice?” It turned out that I wasn’t alone. Others were doing agility in the hallway of their apartment building or in the living room. And we all were frustrated that we couldn’t leave our equipment up to use as time allowed. Hence, my excitement that I could reserve a portion of our new home’s finished basement for agility. At last, the pets and I could do agility whenever we want without the hassle of having to put up and take down a course. Moreover, I now can teach agility to even our shyest cat. As for cost, there are economical ways to build an agility course. As I noted in my Cat Agility article, I found a small affordable tunnel at Toys R Us. In addition, I bought two sets of weave poles and hoops for cats from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Since writing my article, I also bought a foam jump through Lincoln Pet Exchange. Next purchases will be the supplies for an A-Frame and a pet walk!

In September, my parents came to visit for a week. None of the cats had met them before. Rainy hung back initially, but by the evening she was coaxing them for food and attention. Throughout their stay, she also tried to visit them in the guest room more than once while they were sleeping. Also, during my parents’ visit, we invited friends over twice for games. Rainy once again made her presence known. We also had my in-laws (Andy’s parents) over for a visit. All the pets welcomed them. They brought their dog too. Prior to this, Rainy had met their dog a few times at their home. For the most part, Toby maintained a respectful distance from Rainy, but they remain curious about one another too. I suspect one day they might even become play buddies! All these visits have got me thinking again about Rainy’s potential as a therapy cat. Keep watch for future articles on this front

“Down!” “Get off!” “Leave it!” If you’ve ever yelled any of these commands at your pets, you’re not alone. Rainy is over two years old, and until recently nothing that we’ve tried has successfully kept her off our counters. First, we attempted the standard methods of using a spray bottle, double-sided tape on placemats, aluminum foil, and cans with coins in them. The idea behind all these contraptions was to make the counter unappealing, and indeed they’ve worked with other cats of ours. Unfortunately, none of these things have ever fazed Rainy. Next, we tried creative methods such as motion-activated deterrents. Andy found these scary rubber snakes that strike out when they detect movement. The first few times Rainy got “attacked” by these, she fled the kitchen. But the prospect of food encouraged her to persist, and soon she had learned how to stay out of the reach of the snakes. Then I tried an idea I got from a podcast. Just before preparing food I let Rainy down into the basement, where I let her explore until I had all the cat dishes filled. My latest idea has been the most successful. While I prepare the cats’ food, I have Rainy sit on a small stool next to me. Each time I open a new can, if she has kept her bottom on the stool, I let her lick food from my finger. This way, instead of simply restricting her access to food, I’m rewarding her good behavior. This idea has worked so well that as soon as I place the stool next to our kitchen countertop, Rainy jumps up on it and gives me her attention.

With the arrival of October, life is more settled at the Frederick household, and I’ve finally resumed daily training with the pets. I’ve also begun a new kind of training, one that involves all the pets, and will introduce you to it in my next installment of Rainy’s adventures.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

RainyTraining rule number eight: Figure out the source.

Training rule number nine: Maintain a routine.

August was a chaotic month. As a result, Rainy and I got less training done. We took another trip to Hearts United for Animals, returned a couple of times to the local rose garden, and met that puppy again.

What’s most rewarding about our visits to Hearts United for Animals is that they’re always an adventure. The first Sunday of August, Andy and I packed food, water, and a litter box. Then off we drove with Rainy to Auburn. As soon as we entered the agility building, we heard shelter dogs barking in the next room. I immediately pulled out high-incentive treats. Rainy gobbled them up but remained vigilant. I didn’t push her to perform. Instead we strolled around the building and, as we encountered obstacles, I encouraged her to try them. She agreed to do the table, the tunnels, and the dog walk. When we figured out that she felt most comfortable in the tunnels, we used them to our advantage. I’d face her in the direction of a tunnel, direct her through an obstacle, and then allow her to retreat to the tunnel. After doing this a few times, Andy had a different idea. He carried her over to the next room and lifted her up so she could see the dogs through the window. After a minute, she seemed calmer, as if simply knowing the source of the noise was enough. She was now willing to tackle obstacles closest to the door, such as the A-frame, weaves, and teeter. Once she had run a few courses, we allowed her to explore, and she discovered spider egg sacs. Our trips are always an adventure!

Sometimes the lesson I learn from repeating an outing is all the things Rainy doesn’t like about a certain location. The rose garden is an example. It’s located next to a main street. Even when traffic on it is light, what traffic there is still whizzes past, and this puts Rainy on edge. While I do enjoy seeing the varieties of roses, they’re of no interest to Rainy. She sniffs the grass and no doubt enjoys the smells. She sits on my lap and soaks in the sun. But that’s it. To date, Rainy’s favorite places seem to be the indoor ones.

My in-laws have a toy poodle puppy. Andy and I first took Rainy to meet him in July. During that visit, we took precautions, and placed on Rainy on one side of a baby gate and Toby on the other. Everything went well! During our second visit, I kept Rainy in her carrier until after dinner but then leashed her and let her out. It only took only a few seconds before Toby barked and bounded right up to her face, ready to play. Rainy immediately hissed and swatted him. He backed away but didn’t flee. Instead he tried approaching her from behind. Again, Rainy hissed and swatted him. This time Toby’s demeanor changed. He grew quiet and his tail went still. While he didn’t flee, he opted to seek refuge with his owners. At our third visit, Toby barked and jumped, ready to play—from a safe distance.

When life gets busy, I can easily let routines slip. That happened in August. At first my plan was to just skip one day. Unfortunately, all too soon that one day becomes two or three days. Before I realized it, a week has passed. Thankfully, Rainy is forgiving. When I finally rolled out the stroller, she was eager as always to train.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

The month of July was a full one for Rainy. We practiced a few items on the Canine Good Citizenship test. In doing so, we revisited clicker training, visited a friend, and toured a store. Oh, and we played on an agility jungle gym.

Why is Rainy working on the Canine Good Citizenship test when she isn’t a dog? Because prospective therapy dogs must pass it, but there is no such test yet for felines. What type of items are on the test? The first five items test a dog’s ability to politely and calmly meet strangers, while the last five cover obedience commands and the dog’s ability to handle distractions and separation. I figure that Rainy is learning how to handle the first five through her supervised visits; the others I want to focus on practicing at home.

One of the basic obedience commands tested in the CGC test is, “Come.” Rainy has been struggling with the command, so this week I decided to revisit clicker training as a way of teaching recall. For clicker training, one uses a small metal noisemaker to mark desirable behavior, and then rewards with a reinforcement such as a treat. When watching online clicker training videos, I realized the importance of marking the tiniest sign of obedience. I used to reward Rainy only if she fully obeyed the command. Now the instant that Rainy head towards me, I click and reward. Rainy doesn’t always make it to me or take a straight path, but the point of clicker training is to shape a behavior. The more I clicked and rewarded each time she obeyed, the more improvement I saw. (You can read a longer version of how to teach “come” on page 16 of Lincoln Kids.)

Another item on the CGC test is a demonstration of the pet’s ability to ignore noisy distractions. I enlisted my husband to help with this one. I called the cat trio into the kitchen, rewarded them for coming, and then asked them to sit. When they started to sit, Andy dropped an object on the floor. He started with a quieter item and proceeded to louder ones: first a cardboard tube, then a pill bottle, then a spoon. Despite a history of noise aversion, Rainy wasn’t fazed by any of these distractions. Next time, we’ll practice with louder noises.

As I noted, the first five items test an animal’s ability to meet strangers. This week, I accepted an invitation to take Rainy to visit a friend. When I opened the door of Rainy’s carrier, she didn’t want to come out. To help relax her, I offered her goat cheese from my hand. She ate it. To encourage her to come out of her carrier, I sprinkled a trail of cheese leading away from the carrier. She didn’t take the bait. I placed a blanket on the floor, added some cheese, and then simply lifted Rainy out of the carrier. She didn’t protest, but instead ate the cheese and sat next to me. Next, I moved the blanket closer to my friend and added more cheese. Rainy ate the cheese and sniffed my friend. I gave my friend some cheese and Rainy accepted cheese from her hand. Finally, I put the blanket on my friend’s lap and placed Rainy onto it. Rainy laid down and allowed my friend to pet her. When Rainy got down, she took time to explore, but eventually retreated under the bed. Visit over!

At the online International Cat-Assisted Therapy group, some owners of therapy cats shared that they had started their training by going to indoor places. When I told this to Andy, he suggested we visit Sit Stay, a small pet store. While my husband searched for just the right dog treat, I pushed our pet stroller up and down the aisles. Unlike one of our cats who hisses when I take her places in the stroller, Rainy sat upright and peered at the sights. The store clerk was impressed! So was I! After Andy bought a bag of fishy pet treats, I unzipped the stroller. Rainy peeked out and let the store clerk pet her. Another success!

For a long time, Andy and I have talked about having a pet enrichment day, on which we would rearrange our living room to give our pets a new environment to explore. This week we did this, and in doing so treated our dog and cats to an agility jungle gym. Our other two cats weren’t too sure about the new arrangement; Rainy took it all in stride. She jumped onto the boards placed on chairs, raced through tunnels, and climbed onto the heights of the cat tower. At one point, I followed her into the bigger tunnel. When she turned around and saw me following, she flopped down as if to ask, “What are you doing, Mom?” Then she leaped to her paws and zoomed about the tunnel as if to say, “Some fun, eh?!” The other two cats finally decided to in on of the action. Our pet enrichment afternoon was a blast!

Most nights, Rainy joins me in bed at night. She curls up under my arm and then snuggles with me until morning. Our life is full and my girl is happy!

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

Rainy continues to train as an agility cat. Her veterinarian has also signed papers needed for her to train as a therapy cat. I’ll write more on that later. For now, let me tell you about our past week. It included our return to a nearby park, introduction to a puppy, and a social with one of my friends.

I’ll start with our return to a nearby park. As usual, I took Rainy to the park in our pet stroller and then let her out on leash when we arrived. As she sought refuge underneath a bench, I sat and sweated and tried not to have doubts about our goals. A father and his son stopped to chat with me. The boy was wearing a hat with cat decals. He wanted me to see it and to know that he liked cats. His father told me that his son liked the speed of cats. After the two left, I picked Rainy up and placed her on the bench beside me. She didn’t try to get down but instead ate goat cheese from my hand. I decided to push her to the next level by walking around with her in a grassy part of the park. Rainy sat and politely refused to budge. Her ears remained perked and her eyes stayed wide, vigilant to the activities and noises around us. Not being able to get her to relax, even with treats, I placed her back on the bench. When we had enough of the heat, I encouraged her to walk with me to the park entrance. Rainy showed no resistance to this idea and seemed to enjoy the short stroll, perhaps because the nearby bushes gave her a stronger sense of security than the more spacious grassy area had.

One might say our outing was a partial success. But I had doubts due to her slow progress, enough that I decided to ask questions at some Facebook groups. First, I posted in a cat agility group. Unfortunately, no one in the group could offer any advice. Cat agility is still in its infancy. While there are at least two professional organizations that host cat agility shows, no one in my group has ever tried training their cat to do agility outside of the privacy of their home.

Having struck out with the cat agility people, I next posted to International Cat-Assisted Therapy (I-CAT). Why does cat therapy have to do with agility? Well, if Rainy is to do agility outside of our home, she needs to feel comfortable with new people and places. And if she can be comfortable in strange situations, she might as well become a therapy cat, right?! To be honest, I’m still figuring out the best ways to meet Rainy’s needs, hence, the questions I posed to the therapy group. This time I got better results. The therapy group’s members graciously told me about how they had started with small INDOOR spaces, then moved to bigger INDOOR spaces, and only then ventured OUTSIDE. A few mentioned that their cats didn’t particularly care for the outdoors. Nonetheless, many did fine with the hustle and bustle of hospitals and schools. Their responses renewed my hope!

For our second adventure, I decided to introduce Rainy to a new dog. The cat therapy group members advised me that therapy cats may very well encounter dogs. I admit that this makes me nervous. After all, some dogs and cats are mortal enemies—especially those dogs with a strong prey instinct. For that reason, I will always want to closely monitor Rainy’s encounters with dogs. In this instance, however, I feel relatively safe. The dog we’ll meet is a three-month-old toy poodle named Toby. He belongs to my in-laws. We have a toy poodle of our own, and so Rainy is already comfortable with the breed. Puppies make me less nervous because their lives are centered around play. And if we’re going to continue to take our pets with us when we visit my in-laws, Rainy and Toby need to get acquainted. All the same, Andy and I took precautions. I sat with Rainy in our in-laws’ dining room and let her simply observe their dog from the safety of my lap. Rainy and Toby were curious about each other, but neither pulled out their claws or bared their teeth. Next, we put Rainy and Toby on opposite sides of a baby gate. Then we dropped morsels of food and let the two of them sniff each other through the gate. Again, they remained friendly. Success!

For our final adventure, I took Rainy with me when I went for a walk with a friend. My friend walked Barnaby and I pushed Rainy in the pet stroller. We visited the Hamann Rose Garden. When we reached the first gazebo, I unzipped the pet stroller to give Rainy some food and water. She immediately wanted out to explore. On the ground, she sniffed the bushes and listened to the rush of traffic. As with the park, I then deposited her next to me on a bench. To my surprise, she curled up next to me and seemed content. My friend took photos. We caught up on news while the pets relaxed. Eventually, I returned Rainy to her stroller, but only because it was getting late and not because she had requested it. I’m not sure what was different about the two locations, but Rainy seemed truly comfortable on this outing. What a great way to end the week!

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

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Happy New Year!

Allison’s Book Bag is currently on hiatus. I will return after a much-needed rest with reviews of Advanced Reader Copies including: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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