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Unleashing your pet's potential.


Morris, the 9-Lives cat, recently announced his entry into the '88 presidential race. Early polls show that if he honors his campaign promise of equal rights for all felines and the millions of voters they represent, he'll win by a whisker.

Training a cat for the presidency is no easy task, of course. But getting your cat, or pet, to perform endearing tricks or obey instructions is a matter of reinforcement, both positive and negative.

My friend Judy owns a cat named Midnight, who upon command fetches a ring that comes from the top of a gallon milk jug. When he returns with the prize, Judy says, "Good, Midnight,' and rewards him with love and petting.

Each of Judy's 12 cats has a favorite toy, which she capitalizes on for teaching them tricks. When Snicker began showing interest in a ball, she used the ball for training him to play soccer. She spends time with each cat in turn, rehearsing the trick that each likes best. For reinforcement, Judy never uses food, only love. And her cats all go to great lengths to please her.

People who successfully train pets have developed a certain awareness about their pets that borders on mental telepathy; from this awareness comes communication that bridges the species differences between man and animal. Judy knows the type of positive reinforcement each cat craves. Pudder wants to be held; Snickers runs over for a pat on the head when he needs attention; and Blackie, the loner, is satisfied to know that Judy is near.

Whether you know it or not, training occurs all the time: when you take a new puppy home from the pet store in the car, when you take your cat to the veterinarian, and when you introduce your new canary to your old budgie. Dr. Dare Miller, an expert on canine behavior and the inventor of the Dog-Master System of training, says, "Dogs copy our actions and attitudes; in other words, our affections, our fears, and our tempers. The way we go about teaching so often comes across more clearly to the dog than whatever it is we are trying to teach.'

In her book, Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, Karen Pryor stresses the reinforcement theory of animal training. "Positive reinforcement is anything which, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again,' she says. "A positive reinforcement is something the subject wants, such as food, petting, or praise. A negative reinforcement is something the subject wants to avoid --a blow, a frown, an unpleasant sound.' Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment, which occurs after the behavior; negative reinforcement occurs as the behavior is taking place. Swatting a new puppy with a rolled newspaper when you find a puddle is punishment, which the puppy may not associate with the inappropriate act. On the other hand, petting and praise given immediately after the puppy makes a puddle in the selected potty area of the yard are positive reinforcements. When you catch the puppy squatting and ready to puddle on your Oriental rug, squirting him in the act with a water pistol is negative reinforcement.

The subtle art of training is the ability to know when to apply the reinforcement. Judy gives Midnight the praise he seeks only when he returns the milk ring to her; she ignores him when he takes it to the corner. Judy gives Pudder a squirt with the water pistol when he climbs on the desk and appears to be thinking about taking a bite of the potted palm. This is the "magic moment' of reinforcement, Dr. Miller explains, "just as the dog starts the unwanted behavior.'

Almost all animal trainers agree that you can teach an old dog new tricks and that the way to do it is with reinforcement; however, it is easier if you start out "right' with a young animal.

If at all possible, adopt a new puppy or kitten at six weeks of age, the critical time of socialization; puppies or kittens develop a keen sense of empathy for people at this time. Give the new member lots of body contact with affection and cuddling. This is also the time to introduce young children who will be handling the pet.

Immediately give the new pet a two-syllable name, and use it each time you talk to the pet. Teach the pet to "Come' at the sound of his name. When teaching an animal to come, squat down so you are close to the pet's level. You might start by saying, "Come, Fluffy,' each time you feed the animal; clap your hands or rattle the feed dish.

When Fluffy comes, reward him with praise and petting.

During the eighth week of life, puppies and kittens are especially vulnerable to trauma and fright; avoid situations that scare the animal. This is also the time most veterinarians recommend beginning vaccinations; keep in mind that the young animal will take its cue from you about car rides and the veterinary hospital. To prevent a negative association, Dr. Miller recommends that you take your puppy on happy, five-minute rides in the car and give praise when it sits quietly and calmly in the appropriate place; increase the length of the ride five minutes each day.

Dogs have survived for eons as pack members, and you must make sure the new puppy realizes that you are the "top dog' in your pack. If a new puppy is brought into a home with an older dog, the older dog is usually the dominant animal, but as the puppy grows older, it may assume this role. Pudder is the "top cat' in Judy's household because he was there first. It is best not to interfere with these roles except when you have a dominant animal that wants to boss you.

You must always be consistent in your messages. If you allow your new pet to chew your old worn-out house slippers, do not expect it to stop short of your new Nikes. Likewise, do not allow the dog to dig up dandelions in the park and then expect him to leave your marigolds alone.

Fast movement in the area of a dog or a cat causes a bitting reflex, the visual-oral reflex. Using a newspaper or fly swatter for punishment may stimulate a pet to bite. For house training, I recommend that a potty area be selected in an appropriate place in the yard and the new puppy be taken to that spot as often as every two hours if possible, and certainly after it eats, drinks, sleeps, and exercises. When the puppy performs the desired function, give positive reinforcement.

What's good for training dogs and cats is also good for the birds. Willie, the owner of Land & Sea Pets, taught her cockateel, Edger, to dance on his perch. She withholds the bird's favorite snack until it makes an attempt toward the action she wishes to reinforce. Every effort in the right direction she rewards with peanuts, for Edger, or small pieces of pineapple for Jock, her parrot. "A combination of hand feeding on your part and a little hunger on the bird's part will help cross the social barrier faster than anything else,' says Dr. T. J. Lafeber, an authority on pet-bird care and medicine and the author of Tender Loving Care for Pet Birds. "Feed your bird twice daily and between meals take his food away. By feeding at about 12-hour intervals, the bird begins to look forward to mealtime because of hunger. It won't be long before the bird realizes where his food comes from and who is feeding him. This makes the bird come to you. Food is the reward to be used anytime a satisfactory word is said or a trick is accomplished.'

Pet birds, such as parrots and parakeets, have a much greater propensity for making human sounds if they have been removed from other birds early in life, so that communication takes place in people talk rather than bird talk.

I believe that most animals can be trained, and it is certainly worthwhile for pet owners to learn the basics of animal training. Books, videos, and training courses are available for teaching basic obedience to dogs and cats. The least you can accomplish for your efforts is a more pleasurable relationship with your pet.
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Author:Whiteley, H. Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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