Only one cat appeared in the seventy-nine paintings featured in the National Gallery’s special exhibit, “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting,” which I saw in December 2017. In Hendrick Sorgh’s “The Lute-Player,” an orange tabby lurked under a small table, hind legs uncomfortably folded, eyes closed though his head was stiffly upright. A few paces away from the table, the lute-player sat singing with his dog (one of fourteen in the show) at his feet. The young woman he serenaded, the cat’s mistress, stared blankly out the window, her wine untouched. On the wall above her head hung a scene from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, whose tryst was tragically interrupted by a lioness. The poor lute-player had no chance. If you’re looking for success in love, the dog means yes and the cat means no.
In other wings of the National Gallery, and in thousands of museums throughout the world, cats spent centuries stalking birds and mice, stealing food off the table, foraging through garbage, or sleeping while God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the Archangel Gabriel descended from heaven to visit Mary, Judas plotted to betray his teacher, the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his disciples at a roadside inn, and families gathered for Sunday dinner after mass to celebrate their faith. Independent, aloof, and inscrutable, cats remained oblivious to the human and the divine.
When I returned from the National Gallery to my apartment in northwest DC and opened the door, Miles, the Siamese, hopped on to the stool in the foyer. As I stepped inside, he raised his slender front leg, an exquisite shade of blue-grey, and tapped me on the arm. Jackson, the Burmese, flopped down on the floor at my feet and extended his legs, forward and backward. His body is a ten-pound block of dark chocolate. I knelt beside him and spun him with my arms, like a giant roulette, as he lay stretched on his side. The hardwood floor of the foyer is perfect for this maneuver. He can complete five, six revolutions before sitting up groggily and lifting his paw for a handshake. Miles regarded me from his post on the stool, ready to raise his paw again to high-five me. I stood up and reached for the clicker and the treats I keep on the shelf by the door. Daily in our modest apartment, my feline companions challenge the worldwide, age-old myth of their species’ narcissism and intractability.
I first learned about clicker training at a cat show where a dozen cats took the stage with their trainers to sit, shake hands, stand on their hind legs, and jump through a hoop. Every cat looked supremely confident. I had seen dogs fetching sticks and catching Frisbees in parks. At Midwestern state fairs, pigs raced around tracks and llamas (led by their handlers) navigated obstacle courses. But all these animals paled in comparison. Only a cat could exude such self-possession while performing tricks on command.
I pictured Miles and Jackson leaping up to a special perch—a platform, no less—to strike a series of elegant poses and basking in our guests’ admiration. Even my friends who doted on their cats believed that cats were untrainable. Together, Miles, Jackson, and I would dazzle them and dispel this benighted notion. The trainers at the cat show were using dried chicken liver treats and a thumb-sized plastic device that made a sharp clicking noise when you pressed the button. They assured me that anyone can teach their cats a repertoire of tricks. I went home and immediately ordered the books they recommended, with both cats lounging on the desk next to the computer as I clicked away on its keys.
Clicker training—a form of operant conditioning that uses positive reinforcement—was originally developed in the 1940s by two students of B.F. Skinner’s. After teaching pigeons to push balls with their beaks, the pair advocated using the method to train other animals, but it didn’t catch on until the 1990s when Karen Pryor, an American biologist and animal behavior psychologist, started giving seminars to dog owners. Clicker training is now used with horses, cats, birds, and rabbits as well as dogs. In spite of its origin in behavior modification, the current practice emphasizes exercise and enrichment, especially for indoor pets whose lives can be sedentary and monotonous. All the three books I read stated that the training is supposed to be fun, and that at its core, it’s a bonding exercise for you and your pet.
The first step in training is to teach your pet that the sharp click from the plastic device you can carry in your hand or wear around your neck on a string (it comes in cheerful candy colors like red, green, and yellow) means he will get a treat. Once the pet understands this basic concept, you can teach him that he has to do something—such as raising one paw for a handshake—to cause you to “click and treat.” The noise allows you to mark the behavior being reinforced with more precision than just tossing the treat in the general direction of your pet. For the treat, I started with dehydrated shrimp but later switched to Friskie’s “Party Mix” because the little eyes and the feelers of the shrimp bothered me. (I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t expect my cats to be.) Miles was three and Jackson, two and a half, the summer I trained them—six years ago now—but cats of any age can be trained.
Because each book gave slightly different advice, I prepared my own step-by-step directions, printed them on large sheets of paper to tape on the wall for easy reference, and worked with one cat at a time. It took each cat less than a minute to comprehend the basic concept of “click and treat.” The dehydrated shrimp was a big hit, but associating noise and food comes naturally to cats anyway. I don’t know any cat who doesn’t dash into the feeding area when someone, even a stranger, shakes a bag of dry food or pulls the pop-tab from a can.
Cats also instinctively touch things with their nose. For their first command, TOUCH, I held a pencil in front of my cats’ nose so they couldn’t miss; I clicked and treated as soon as the tip of their nose touched the pencil. This, too, only took a minute for the cats to understand. Before the end of the first session, each cat was following the pencil around and trying to touch his nose to it. Now the pencil had become a tool that I could use to lead the cats around the apartment and to teach them various gestures and poses. For the next session, SIT, I held the pencil slightly above the cats’ head to cause them, naturally, to look up and begin to sit. As soon as their butt touched the floor, I clicked and treated. They each learned to SIT in one session, and come HERE in another. For the latter, I pointed first with the pencil and then just with my finger.
I never doubted that Miles and Jackson would catch on if I followed the directions with care, keeping my part of the exercise—command, click, treat—precise and consistent. Still, I was thrilled by how quickly they mastered the basics. Of course, I realized, my cats had been learning to read me long before the clicker entered our daily routine. Ever since they were kittens, Miles and Jackson had recognized the sound of my footsteps and the patterns of my activity; they correctly anticipated when I was coming home, going to bed, or preparing for the cleaning ladies’ bi-weekly visits and, accordingly, greeted me at the door, hopped on the bed, or hid under it. Now, as soon as I brought out the clicker, they were by my side, ready to play. I loved witnessing their progress. They loved being rewarded. All three of us looked forward to our daily training sessions. I finally understood why people took swing dance lessons and joined bridge clubs with their spouses or friends: learning a new hobby is more fun in close company.
Every advanced trick the cats and I worked on was an extension of the basics we’d mastered together, but soon, each cat developed his own repertoire. I taught Jackson to stand on his hind legs like a bear (by holding the pencil high above his head) because it was a gesture he made occasionally on his own. Miles is one of those cats that habitually uses his long front leg like an arm, so I taught him to HIGH-FIVE. The secret was to start with something they could do easily and not keep pushing when they didn’t comprehend what they were supposed to do. In teaching Jackson to shake hands, I got confused about which hand or paw was right or left, so he raises his left paw instead of his right. I decided that the feline handshake should be the opposite of the human version. It was important not to be a perfectionist. Retraining him to raise the right paw would have been too confusing and frustrating for both of us.
To teach them to jump (PONY), I first put the stick on the floor and led them over it with the pencil. They got clicked and treated every time they walked over the stick. Once they could do that consistently, I raised the stick a little higher each time so eventually they had to jump. Soon all I had to do was hold up the stick. By the time I found the right hoop—it’s actually a hula hoop for a child—Miles and Jackson were both experts at PONY. The hoop trick (DOLPHIN) was only a slight modification. I had discovered by then that the cats could learn from each other if I trained them together. Miles perfected both the PONY and the DOLPHIN first and Jackson imitated him. A typical Siamese, Miles is extremely active and alert, meowing loudly, bumping his head on my arms and legs and tapping my face with his paw all day long to pester me for attention while Jackson naps, so I wasn’t surprised that he was the quicker learner.
I eventually coached Miles to stand on the edge of the table, leap up through the hoop, and land gracefully on the floor. With his long pale body and masked face (like blue-grey suede), he looks fantastically aerodynamic. This advanced version of DOLPHIN is the showiest trick in our repertoire, but Jackson—whose leaps are not as spectacular due to his chubby legs—also has his moments to shine. He can launch himself straight up from the floor in a vertical jump, all four feet in the air and his body slightly bent at the waist, to bat at the feathers I dangle above his head. Thanks to his huskier figure and lower center of gravity, he can hold his BEAR pose in perfect form and even stand with his hind legs completely extended and his front legs stretched over his head (GRIZZLY). Taller and wobblier, Miles isn’t as comfortable on his hind legs.
Reviewing the clicker repertoire is now an integral part of our bedtime ritual. The exercise they get from running around the apartment tires out the cats and helps them to sleep through the night. Miles, especially, loves to sprint from room to room, repeating SIT, SIT, SIT in all the places I point with my finger. Like me, he is a runner. If he were on the track team, he would excel at the mile, half-mile, and thousand-meters—the events I specialized in on my high school track team—while Jackson, who has the physique and swagger of a shot-putter, would dedicate himself to the field events I failed to master. Unlike me, Jackson would never send the shot straight up in the air and have to step back out of the way, or release the discus half a turn too soon and watch helplessly as it sailed toward the stands. His vertical jump resembles the beginning step of the Fosbury Flop. Incidentally, he would not refuse to learn the Fosbury by saying to the coach, “No way. I’m not jumping over that bar unless I can see it.” He would be a better learner, a more committed team player, than I ever was.
Everyone who comes to our apartment for the first time is astonished to see Miles and Jackson performing their tricks, but our mission to educate the public remains incomplete. My friends just believe that my cats are exceptional geniuses. None of them has started training their own cat. After all, the myth of the Unteachable Cat has been reinforced by numerous scientific studies. Monkeys, rats, and pigeons can be taught to press a lever or peck at a button to get a food treat. Presented with multiple levers or buttons, these animals would persist through the trial-and-error process until they can accurately predict which choice causes the treat to fall down the chute. Cats learn quickly enough if they happen to press the right lever early in the session. But if they keep choosing wrong and no treat appears, they stop trying and walk away.
Like the classic underachievers among us, cats become easily discouraged and bored when a task challenges them too much. The painters throughout history were right about the cat’s refusal to pay proper attention. If God himself appeared in the sky with a message for all of Creation, cats would go on stalking birds or sleeping, hoping that the cosmic upheaval would simply pass them by. Their unwillingness to adjust and accommodate has caused humans to judge them as selfish, perverse, aloof, and uncaring, but that may be unfair. Dogs, rats, and pigeons are omnivores famous for their ability to find food in multitudes of unlikely venues. Cats evolved to hunt small rodents whose patterns of behavior are highly predictable. It’s not often that a cat goes to a place where he has never seen a mouse and suddenly a mouse appears. “To keep trying” to master a new way of hunting or foraging in spite of repeated failures is simply not in the cat’s nature.
That’s why it’s important to start clicker training with easy tricks and familiar gestures that result in a food reward, like touching a nose to a pencil or walking rather than jumping over a stick. The most important advice I got from the books I read was to back off and try another day if the cats keep “getting it wrong” and, finally, to abandon tricks that are simply too frustrating for them to learn. It’s torturous for a cat to keep raising his left paw instead of the right and not getting the treat that is, so clearly, nestled in the human’s palm. The idea that only the right paw is correct is ultimately an arbitrary decision on the part of the human. Both the human and the cat will be happier if the human can accept that the cat is never going to distinguish between the opposite hemispheres of his brain or his body.
When their interest is engaged, however, cats are incredibly persistent. A friend’s cat once caught a chipmunk that scurried in through a hole under the closed garage door and spent the next ten years trotting immediately to that same spot whenever he was allowed to venture into the garage. Like mine, he was an indoor cat who had never experienced the outdoors except from inside his pet carrier on the way to the vet. He had no idea that a hole that opened up to the world at large was not the same as the hole in the wall next to the basement crawl space where he successfully hunted mice every winter. This cat never caught another chipmunk through the hole in the garage but he never gave up the quest.
Cats performed abysmally on animal intelligence tests involving levers and buttons because they were being presented with the wrong problems to solve. We were asking them to turn their failures into successes, when their strength is in learning to repeat and build on their successes. This preference for learning from a win rather than from a loss is healthy and sensible. Given a choice, we humans, too, would rather study a subject or take up a sport that comes easily to us and get better at it than spend hours trying to be less bad at an activity for which we have no aptitude. I gave up on every field event in track; I wouldn’t be tempted to sign up for dance lessons or card-playing clubs no matter how enticing the company. If I didn’t enjoy putting words and sentences together, if I didn’t take pleasure in following the twists and turns that a thought can take, I wouldn’t be taking apart an essay I thought I finished and starting over again, or staring at the same paragraph for hours trying to understand the uneasy truth that lies beneath the falsely elegant surface I constructed. A writing workshop would be a disaster (and sometimes it is) if we didn’t base our critique on what the writer can already do well.
Miles once tried to intervene when I was writing comments on a student story that struck me as particularly ill-conceived. In the middle of listing everything I thought was wrong with it, I walked away to refill my coffee cup, and Miles—who likes to eat paper—took this opportunity to hop on the desk and sample the story. He licked so hard he put a dozen tiny holes on the page I was reviewing. A cat’s tongue is like sandpaper. The holes were clustered in a two-inch area where the paper had become almost transparent. I had to circle the spot and write, “Sorry, my cat did this. I swear it wasn’t me.” The student later told me that the comic relief from Miles’s transgression helped her to accept my critique, and I apologized for the harsh tone I had taken in the remarks I had scrawled all over her manuscript in ink. Now, on days when I feel harried and impatient, I remind myself that teaching creative writing isn’t so different from clicker training: you have to help people to build on their successes.
The manuscript Miles tried to eat was a ghost story, mailed to me by a student in a long-distance-learning program. She had chosen to write this new story as her final submission for the semester in spite of my repeated request for her to try at least one story in which nothing supernatural happened. Irritated by her disregard for my advice, I only commented begrudgingly on her quirky sense of humor that was surprising and even charming. I should have advised her to apply humor and irony—her strengths—to the way she thought about the whole story, not just to her writing style. Instead, I excoriated her for the plot inconsistencies that annoyed me and insisted that the story lacked basic believability. The student was working on fantasy; I wanted realism. I didn’t give her the same break I granted my cats for not being dogs.
Dogs are so alert to human speech that many of them learn to recognize key words like “walk” and “ball” without much training. Cats respond more to gestures and props. You can hold a stick in front of a dog but make him SIT and STAY until the human actually says JUMP. Perhaps my cats could have, with great effort, learned to “listen better,” too. But when they saw the stick and leapt with utter enthusiasm, I didn’t have the heart to discourage them. I should have been kinder to that student, parsing what was and wasn’t reasonable for me to expect from her.
The goal of clicker training is not to control your cats but to figure out, together, how to choreograph the sequence of cues and gestures that ends in the mutually satisfying click of success. From the cats’ perspective, the whole process must look like they are teaching me, step by step, to produce the treat. And in fact, Miles and Jackson are training me to be consistent but flexible, patient and positive, as an ideal caretaker should be.
Cats are creatures of habit. Once they learn a trick, they will perform it perfectly every time. Actions that their ancestors or wild cousins would never attempt—shaking hands, imitating other animals, jumping through a child’s hula hoop—eventually become second nature: something they do as if by instinct. Still, by launching himself off the table up through the hoop, Miles is showing me that a leap of faith is a collaborative venture. He jumps because he can trust me.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.