Animal Attraction Blog

Classical Conditioning: A Practical Application

Posted by Laura Bourhenne on Aug 13, 2014 1:29:21 PM


Remember that article I wrote about using positive reinforcement to change behavior when dealing with aggression? Well, obviously the scenario in it was hypothetical (the part about the snakes). That's not to say that it won't work, because it definitely would. However, since it was hypothetical I wanted to give you a real story using classical conditioning with a semi-feral cat.

We've had a cat for a number of years who is feral. Because she lived with our other cats it was difficult to train her as we didn't have space to separate them. Recently her last friend died. Since then I thought how miserable she must be all by herself. In addition, she is getting older, so the possibility of needing to medicate her at some point was pretty certain. With that in mind I had to find a way to train this cat who used to hide in her cubbyhole any time someone walked in the room. She was so fearful that just us walking up the stairs would send her scrambling into her cat house.

The first step was to find something she liked. She didn't want food when I was around so that was out. Cat treats, like Greenies, were unpredictable. Sometimes she'd take them, sometimes not. What I found though, is that she likes to be brushed! I found a soft bristle brush that I could use on her tail as she ran past. Pretty soon she started to run slower past me so I could brush her more. The next step was to only brush her as she walked towards me, but not away from me. Pretty soon she was coming over to sniff my shoes as I sat there and brushed her. Then she was rubbing her face into the brush and staying near me for minutes at a time.

To get to touch her I would brush her once, then run my hand down her back & immediately brush her again. Sometime during this process she began to purr. She had never purred before, and here she was purring up a storm while I brushed her from face to tail. It was a good thing I started all of this, because while this was going on she became hyperthyroid and now needs to be medicated daily. In the past when she needed medication I had to squirt it on her fur & hope she licked enough off to do the job. Now it is imperative she receive all her medication because it can affect her kidneys as well.

The process to give her the medication goes like this. She likes routine so I go into her room where her cat stuff is. She runs into the bathroom and lays down. I walk up to her, open her mouth and squirt the medication in. Then I brush her at least until she purrs. Then she goes back into her room. She likes this routine and now, even though she isn't running from me because she is scared, she still runs into the bathroom to be medicated.

Then, last month the doctor said it would be great if I could start giving her sub-cutaneous fluids, meaning I would have to stick a needle under her skin. Yikes!!! I'd done it with the other cats, but if you had asked me 6 months ago if she could get to that point I would have bet money against it. Then I figured if the San Diego Zoo can teach a diabetic monkey to place his arm into a tube for a blood test every day, I can teach a house cat to like having a needle stuck in her! The process went like this: She'd run into the bathroom for her thyroid medication, I'd close the door so she couldn't leave. I'd administer the drug then brush her until she purred. Then, while sitting on the floor with her I'd grab a small area of skin as I would if I was putting a needle in. Before she could react I'd brush her & let go of the skin. Repeat numerous times as long as she didn't attempt to run. We'd always stop before it got to that point. After a few repetitions she could return to her room.

The last step was to actually put the needle in & give fluids while I brush her. At this point she is not sitting in my lap as the other cats did. She is lying on the floor in front of me while I brush her & stick her with a needle. Twice a day she is allowing me to do this, and she purrs the entire time. She knows what is coming yet she still goes into the bathroom, lies on the floor, and waits for me to put fluids into her.

A vet recently told me her cat runs from her when she tries to give him fluids. I thought how sad that is when it is so easy to make it nice and less stressful for everyone involved. The key is to find something the cat or other animal likes a lot and do that during or after whatever the perceived nasty thing is. Your cat, dog, ferret, whatever, will be better off for it and it won't be such a struggle for you.

copyright 2011
Laura Bourhenne
Animal Attraction Unlimited

Topics: classical conditioning, feral cat training, handling a feral cat

Laura is not so much a dog trainer as a miracle worker.
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