How to train a kitten: classical conditioning is your friend

So, I’ve finally been letting the kittens out on the deck and in the fenced yard. Because the weather has been nice, I’m leaving the pet doors open most of the time while I’m home.

Typical location of kittens when they’re inside

The good things: No attempts to get out of the yard. I mean, that’s kind of expected. They’re still pretty young (which sure serves to point out how ultra-tiny they were when that jackass dumped them). For several days they didn’t go more than 20 feet from the bottom of the stairs. They rapidly gained confidence and will now go a hundred feet or so, meaning into the (overgrown, weedy, exciting) hosta bed, where they chase each other through the weeds. They also hung out below the deck while I clipped Naamah this past weekend, because I was throwing handfuls of fluff over the railing and they pounced on the fluff as it fell. This was just as cute as it sounds.

The bad things: Wow, kittens, please do not climb up on and walk along the deck railing, thirty feet or fifty feet or whatever that is above the ground. That is scary even though the railing is wide and flat. Also, if you try to creep down the slanted railing along the stairs, you will slide right down it and drop off the end, if you are lucky, and please don’t fall off that railing until you get to the end.

Further good things: No kitten has fallen off the railing, though Maximillian realized he was in a bad position when he started sliding down along the stairs and jumped off, onto the stairs, rather than continue skidding. Magdalene is braver and when she tried that, she skidded all the way to the end and jumped or fell off. Which did not faze her one bit. She is a very brave kitten.

I keep approaching as gently and reassuringly as possible, then briskly removing kittens from the railing where the drop is scarily high. I’m also reminding myself that I never worried when Chrestomanci jumped up there. But babies are idiots compared to experienced cats like Chrestomanci.

I am also training the kittens to come when called. I’m using absolutely standard no-frills classical conditioning, and actually it’s funny because I’m basically using a bell, like Pavlov himself. Since I don’t have a large bell, I’m actually using a saucepan lid and a spoon. It’s very simple: whap the lid with the spoon and immediately provide kitten treats. Repeat five times. Next day, do it again. It’s handy that neither kitten is afraid of a loud BOING sound. I want something that is recognizable and carries a long way. I might get a whistle or something too.

Regardless, after three days, the kittens were coming to the sound indoors with no distractions. After five, they are running into the house to get their treats. When I find out which kind of treats they REALLY LOVE, I’ll start practicing calling them in from the hosta bed or interrupting them in a play session. I want them enthusiastic, so zero treats of any kind without a BOING sound first. Or if I say kit-kit-kit, they get a treat for coming to that as well. But I mean, no treats unless they come to some sort of recall signal first.

Later, I may add an aversive — we’ll see how it goes. I might try putting pennies in a can and throwing the can at the fence when they try to climb the fence. Pros: Could be useful in discouraging that behavior. Cons: They’re not fazed by sounds. Maybe a squirt gun would work better. More important cons: I don’t want to discourage them from trying to get back into the yard if and when they get out. Potential solution: I’m considering waiting till I’m pretty sure they’re big enough to get in and out, making sure they’re hungry, taking one at a time out of the yard, and inviting the kitten to get back into the yard for a serious, major reward, such as canned tuna or something. I would like to be sure they know how to get back in, because the odds are good they will someday get out. Chrestomanci knew just how to do it. There’s a place by the low part of the deck where it’s relatively easy.

Possible question: Why let them out at all?

Answers: it’s conventional wisdom that indoor cats are just as happy as indoor-outdoor cats. This is nice to believe, but it’s generally not true. Indoor-only cats routinely develop mildly neurotic behaviors because of boredom, as noted for example by Nicholas Dodman, who founded the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University. If you live in a town, that’s an acceptable problem given the huge risk of letting the cat outside. It’s also another excellent reason to get two kittens at a time, never just one. If you live in the middle of nowhere, then the risks are much lower. Roaming dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and birds of prey are the big risks. Being inside at night massively reduces those risks.

Given that I have a pretty secure yard and given that I’m willing to put a fair bit of time into teaching the kittens to come, teaching them to stay in the yard, teaching them to get back into the yard if they get out, and arranging their schedule to get them in at night … well, the large increase in happiness means I’m willing to risk the dangers.

Maximillian doesn’t just share the ee genotype with Golden Retrievers, he is actually a Golden Retriever in disguise! He is super sweet, and he likes to “kiss” your hands and arms, which makes it that much harder to type.

I’m not that worried about the wildlife. I don’t care if the cats catch the occasional rabbit. So do the dogs, after all. We are not going to run out of rabbits. I would certainly prefer they don’t catch birds, but I try hard to prevent flycatchers from nesting on the lights over the deck, and most other birds seem pretty much of the opinion that nesting in the yard is not a good idea. So, we’ll see how it goes …

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3 thoughts on “How to train a kitten: classical conditioning is your friend”

  1. What brave little kittens! Sounds like a great setup for them. We let Anakin out on a harness and leash, so he gets to enjoy safe time outside even though we live in the city. He especially likes to go out with the dogs!

  2. I agree, cats that indoor and outdoor have much richer lives. We used the “cat fence in” product which worked to keep our cats in the yard. And most of the coyotes and bobcats out, they went to easier yards. Especially after getting into our yard once and finding they couldn’t get out! There are other products that do the same kind of containment, or you can DYI.

    However, three hawks moved into the big tree next door and one of them killed one of our cats. We now have part of our yard covered with sturdy bird netting. It’s just like an aviary, but it works in reverse. It’s fairly wide spaced, so the hummingbirds having no trouble getting thru it. I dream of covering our entire yard, but we have a one acre lot!

  3. Oh, I’ve thought of covering part of the yard with a net! Mine is also a really big yard, so I understand the problem. I’ll have to keep an eye out for hawks, as I do when I have puppies. It’s so wooded where I live that redtails don’t really turn up that often; we get more of the smaller birds; Cooper’s hawks, I think. Luckily we don’t have great horned owls. One spring we did, but I was grateful not the hear them the next year.

    I’ll look at the “cat fence in” products. So far the kittens aren’t able to get out of the yard, but depending on what these products are, maybe strategic deployment would keep them from trying at the places I think could be potential exits.

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