Posts Tagged ‘animal behavior training’

Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Unlike when we lived in the garret, the new apartment is practically drama-free. This has left me with a lack of interesting material to relay to the reader about Hannah and Sam. Not that anyone is complaining, of course.

A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that Sam was guarding the refrigerator not for a second helping of his duck dinner but for the mouse that might be hiding in the hole in the corner pocket, an unreachable spot for not just a human but a cat.

I was adamant that Sam was not going to catch an escapee mouse as he did when we lived in the garret. I didn’t want to have to dispose of a corpse, for one thing, but even more importantly I didn’t want Sam to acquire a parasite from a mince-mouse meal.

Unlike in the garret, our current apartment has a maintenance team, and they filled the hole upon my request – in fact, they measured it (5×7 inches!) in order to seal it properly (such a deed would’ve never crossed the mind of the garret landlord).

IMG_1560Still, you can bet I worried anyway when maintenance moved the fridge and I spotted what looked to be mouse turds on the floor (mixed in with some dried up peas I’d spilled a week after move-in). I had no idea how long the turds had been there—perhaps as long as the previous tenant. So, at Sam’s yearly appointment with Dr. Parker, our vet, last week, I asked if it was a concern. The answer, thankfully, was no.

I knew going to the vet was going to be a nightmare for Sam, and that even getting him “familiar” with the carrier days or weeks before was not going to quell his anxiety, as it didn’t last year, or the year before, or when we moved. I used the Feliway spray and Rescue Remedy, again to no effect. I hated having to chase Sam around the living room—while Hannah hid under the bed—and extricate him out from under the couch, a crawlspace not intended for a cat Sam’s size. I held him in a towel as I lowered him into the carrier and shut the door. His whimpers turned to terrible screams, and an old lady who lives downstairs came running. I think she thought I was in the process of killing a child.

“It’s my cat,” I told her.

Her chest heaved, “Oh, there, there,” she cooed at Sam. “It’s okay.”

IMG_1519Sam got a clean bill of health and even—dare I say—enjoyed sitting on the scale (he lost a half-pound since last year, to the delight of Dr. Parker), despite his persistent crying jags. Our cat sitter, who works at the vet clinic, tried to soothe Sam with petting, but he was inconsolable.

“I know, I know,” Dr. Parker said softly to Sam, examining him gently. “You have such a hard life.”

Sam whimpered in agreement.

After it was all over and Sam was back in the carrier, and I took him to the reception area to pay the bill, a familiar stench permeated the air: in his upset, Sam had lost all bladder and bowel control.

IMG_1606When we finally arrived back home, Sam scrambled out of the carrier (Hannah was still under the bed, probably worried she was next) and, after cleaning the carrier and putting it away, I sat down on the couch, let out a breath, and closed my eyes, trying to still the vibrations in my mind. All that screaming had activated my PTSD.

Sam quickly forgave me, of course. It was dinnertime, after all. And soon enough, he and Hannah were on the couch, sleeping soundly.


Does your cat or dog enjoy seeing the vet? Share your stories and comments below.


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Sam's new cat bed design: the canopy.

Sam’s new cat bed design: the canopy.

During these lazy days of August, Sam has been busy designing a new kind of cat bed: the Cat Canopy. It’s quite inexpensive — simply find a usable curtain. Nothing else is required. There is absolutely no cost to humans.

I think Sam was watching The Sound of Music when he acquired the idea to use the curtains — if Fraulein Maria could find such a creative and useful purpose for them, so could Sam. When I first saw him under his new Cat Canopy bed, however, I went over to investigate, concerned that he was hiding. I soon realized he wasn’t frightened of anything; he was just relaxing.

“Sammy?” I said, peeking underneath the blue fabric.

The "wrap-around": there is a cat in there.

The “wrap-around”: there is a cat in there.

“Mnn?” Sam responded contently, then took a deep breath and went back to sleep.

The Cat Canopy is quite versatile and can be adjusted to fit a cat’s mood, from the “umbrella” to the “wrap-around.” However, some cats — such as Hannah, for example — feel they are too refined for this type of cat bed. Those cats prefer the couch, or the bed.



1173738_10151534035380906_200440028_nWhere do your pets like to sleep? Share your stories and comments in the comment box below! 

Hannah prefers the couch.

Hannah prefers the couch.

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Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Summer has been flying by…I just returned from the Tin House Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon, where I was in a memoir workshop led by the author Cheryl Strayed. I left Hannah and Sam in the care of a wonderful cat sitter, a woman who works at the vet clinic. It was the hottest, most humid week of the year here in Boston, but Hannah and Sam did well in my absence. Sam actually made friends with the cat sitter, emerging from his hiding spot under the bed to rub up against her legs and meow a few hellos. Hannah took everything in stride, but this was another first for Sam.

It’s been a summer of new beginnings. Can’t wait to see what August brings.



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Photo of Hannah & Sam, which I shared with my date.

How about a post that doesn’t mention cat pee or poop?

Recently, I went on a blind coffee date with an attorney. He ordered spearmint tea and baklava and declared, “If I ever have a pet, it’ll be a black and brown cat!”

“You mean a tortie?” I asked.

“Huh?” he responded.

“Never mind,” I said, taking out my phone where I store a photo of Hannah and Sam. I showed it to him. “I have two cats.”

My date studied the picture of Hannah and Sam sitting on a windowsill together when Sam was just a year old. Whenever I’ve shared this photo with anyone the usual response is, “Oh they’re so cute!” or “Hannah is pretty,” or “The look on Sam’s face is priceless.”

My date looked a bit perturbed. “You have skinny cats,” he said. He looked up at me then and I saw he had crazy eyes.

Now, I didn’t reject my date just because of his response to the cats. I’d spent over an hour with him by that point, feeling disoriented by his egomaniacal speech and strange point of view on issues of culture, money, and parking spots. But now I felt it was truly confirmed: this wasn’t going to work.


DSCN1041I spent the first two weeks of January at a creative writing MFA residency at Lesley University – local, but very long days, which kept me away for regularly-scheduled cat feedings and required that I set up the automatic timed feeders for Hannah and Sam.

The first day, I was in such a rush that I knocked one of the feeders over, causing kibble to spill all over the garret kitchenette floor. Sam was more than happy to help me clean up. He moved his mouth across the floor as if he were a vacuum cleaner. Over the course of the residency, my mind scattered, I’d repeat this klutz performance more than once.

The hectic residency schedule left me with no down time, which aggravated my PTSD-related anxiety. I slept little, and in the morning had to rush the cat feeding. Normally, Sam eats his breakfast in one gobble, but Hannah eats only half, then takes a break. In order to prevent Sam from eating her food and make sure Hannah gets her nutrition, every morning I put away Hannah’s bowl after her first round, eat my own breakfast, then present the bowl to her again, at which time she eats the remaining food, but only when she’s assured that Sam isn’t going to intrude. She looks around anxiously, part-paralyzed with the anticipation of the orange tabby pushing his way into her bowl. Sam cries if I place him in another room, which only causes Hannah to leave her bowl and sniff the door where Sam is. So I don’t put Sam in another room. Instead, I take out his favorite multi-colored string toy and we play on the other side of the room. Seeing that Sam is safely occupied, Hannah lowers her face to the bowl and crunches on one kibble at a time.

Hannah and Sam wait for me to come home after a long residency day.

Hannah and Sam wait for me to come home after a long residency day.

During the residency, I became impatient with the timeframe of this method, but I took note of Hannah’s mindful eating, an approach that created great calm for her. She reminded me of the importance of slowing down, to digest one thing at a time.



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wrappedaroundtheradiatorWhen I last blogged, Hannah and Sam had come together. Unfortunately, in the days that followed, all that went to pieces. Sam began to get aggressive with Hannah several times a day, and they started fighting a lot, so that I actually consulted with an animal behavioral expert at the Animal Rescue League of Boston where I volunteer. Although I help answer calls that come in to the behavioral helpline, now I was the one in need of advice.

And I got some great instructions on separation and rewards, which I put into place. But what turned out to be the real culprit was a physical issue: feline constipation. For the past year or so, Hannah has been the one with that notorious problem so it took me a long while, through a process of elimination (pun not intended but it does seem to apply here!), to figure out that it wasn’t Hannah but Sam, who, quite the contrary, has always had a reputation for stink-bombing the garret with his litter box deposits.

DSCN0987I began to notice Sam crying intermittently before using the litter box, but it wasn’t unusual for him to cry for attention when I wasn’t in the same room, so at first I’d passed it off as nothing. But the tiny slivers of stool continued to diminish in size and got lost in the piles of litter amidst the regular-sized Metamucil-induced poop, so I began to give Sam a dose of Hannah’s daily teaspoon of fiber, then discontinued his portion after a couple of days, in order to track whose poop was whose. And it turned out to be Sam. At times I question my own anxiety due to having PTSD; I ask myself “is this a real problem, or am I making a big deal out of nothing?” But still I worried about Sam.

It wasn’t nothing. In fact, it may be a medical issue – when I talked with the vet (oh the joys of discussing the size, shape and consistency of feline poop at length, along with the signs and symptoms of feline penile blockage), he said it’s unusual for a two year old cat to have constipation, so I’m giving Sam a half teaspoon of Metamucil daily for the next two weeks. If the situation doesn’t clear up, I’ll need to bring him in for an exam, a trip I know Sam desperately wants to avoid. For now, however, the Metamucil seems to be doing some good. There is more poop in the litter box, and more in the garret than ever. I’ve been finding poop in the hallway and on the carpet. At least Hannah and Sam have been getting along better.

IMG_0878On an altogether different note, Wordpress has sent me this blog’s “Year in Review,” in part: “600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.” For whatever that’s worth….

In 2012, readers viewed this blog from 44 countries. The most popular post was (embarrassingly for me) “Cats & My Coccyx“!

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013, and thanks for your continued readership throughout the year!



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My days tend to be crowded with “productive” things to do: preparing for the upcoming teaching term, going to PTSD treatment, working out at the gym, paying the bills, picking up cat food, revising my new book. So I decided August would be the month I would finally get myself a “fun” project: clicker training.

Clicker training is something I’ve tried once before – a few years ago, as a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League, I went to a one-time seminar on the subject, specifically geared towards training cats for adoptability: acceptable behavior as well as cute tricks. Dogs are known for doing quite well with the clicker; cats are a little more difficult to train, but it’s done. At the time, I brought home my complimentary clicker to see if I could train Hannah to sit on my lap. As soon as I depressed the clicker, however, Hannah flinched at the sound. Some cats need a few clicks to get used to it – pair the sound with a delicious treat and they’re supposed to associate pleasure with the clicker. Not Hannah. So I tossed the clicker, and let Hannah be.

This past June, one of my writing mentors in Washington, D.C. emailed to tell me she was successfully clicker training her two cats. She taught them not only to sit and “come here,” but to do tricks such as standing on their hind legs and raising their front paws. She described how much fun it was for both her and her cats. I thought about Sam, how he cries for me to feed him an hour before mealtime and tries to steal Hannah’s food, and how he gets territorial and aggressive at times when I’m brushing Hannah. I’ve tried to ignore him, put him in a “time-out,” and otherwise not reward the behavior, to no avail. So I thought I could train him and as a result alleviate a growing tension in the garret household.

I bought a new clicker and the training book Naughty No More!, a publication put out by Cat Fancy, which my writing mentor recommended. (Of course when I typed in the title on Amazon, it came up with rather pornographic literature before I finally realized I ought to type in the additional word, “cats,” along with the name of the book.) I also bought two bags of treats, which I tested out on Sam before the arrival of the clicker and training materials – he thought they were scrumptious.

Once the clicker and book arrived, I read the instructions from cover to cover, excited to begin. The book’s foreward discussed the idea behind changing unwanted behaviors through positive reinforcement: “”Clicker training is actually fun for both you and your cat. …It’s a win/win situation for the cat and [his] human family.” Unfortunately, Sam did not make it even to the first trained behavior titled “Please Touch The Target,” because he was terrified of the clicker. When I clicked the clicker and tossed him a treat, he ran faster than I’ve seen him run since he was a kitten, and hid under my bed for the next hour. I thought, ok, perhaps he needs to get used to the sound. No – Sam’s reaction got worse. After the fourth total click (spread out across three days), he acted as if I’d administered an electric shock. As a sort of post-script, the book does say one can use a retractable pen for a more gentle “click” sound, should the cat be “shy” around the clicker, however when I took out a pen Sam took one look at it and ran away to hide for another hour. Hannah, on the other hand, simply sat there watching, as if she was bored.

The next time Sam began to cry for his dinner, I took out the clicker and clicked once. His crying ceased for thirty minutes after that. So I decided to keep the clicker and to use it for the complete opposite reason for which it was made: to deter behavior, not to reward it. I’m not sure how long this will last. Honestly, I hate depressing the clicker, because Sam seems so chagrined when I do.

I have trained Sam to sit, but not with the clicker. When I’m carrying a dish of kibble, Sam meows and quacks and dances around my feet. I tell him “sit” and he circles my legs and taps my calves with his tail. I say it again, “sit” and he lowers his rear and looks up at me, continuing to quack. “Shh,” I say, “no meowing or quacking.” He can hardly contain himself. Finally, when he’s sitting and quiet and almost bursting with delight, I deliver his reward: dinner.


Have you tried to train your pets? Share your experiences and other thoughts in the comment box below.

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