Insights from Cat Agility
Over the past twelve years, I’ve trained five cats in agility (three of whom are still part of our family), and from them I’ve gained insights into cat behavior. Some insights were not unfamiliar to me due to attending dog training classes. For example, each animal learns in its own way, and so one should use methods and treats tailored to them. Other insights came only as I began training our cats as part of my daily routine and found myself struggling to keep our time together fun. And yet other insights occurred only as I began to train our cats for public venues. For example, one should always plan how to teach a behavior and reflect later how to improve upon one’s instruction. This article will expand on these insights.
My experience with kittens has led me to conjecture that cats learn best if taught when young. In 2015, my husband and I had the opportunity to adopt a three-month-old kitten. Over the months that followed, I taught Rainy not only to allow me to groom her but also to follow basic obedience commands, accept a crate and a leash, and tackle agility obstacles. At the time, I attributed our success simply to her being a smart cat. I changed my mind this past winter after I had the opportunity to repeat my training efforts with a foster kitten. When my husband and I placed her into an adoptive home at five months, she was well on her way to acquiring all the same skills as Rainy. If anything, due to my growth as a trainer, our foster kitten had been easier to teach. Starting out with basic training as soon as a kitten comes home, then, is likely to lay the groundwork for more success with complex skills like agility as an adult.
At the same time, I believe one can teach older cats new tricks too. My first cat, Lucy, was an adult when I rescued her. Inspired by attending dog agility classes with my husband and our toy poodle, I set up an amateur agility course in our living room that consisted of chairs and other objects for Lucy to jump. Until her body slowed down, we enjoyed doing agility together. After I lost Lucy to kidney disease in 2013, I revisited my journals, photos, and videos of her, and began to wonder if I’d prematurely stopped training her. Two of our three cats are now five years old or middle age. They can sleep their days away if I let them, but they’re right beside me and eager to interact when I initiate a training session. I suspect that if I’d introduced skills easier on Lucy’s body, she’d have continued to enjoy and benefit from training sessions, and encourage others to not similarly fail their senior cat.
Just as I’ve concluded that kittens are easier to train, I’ve also come to accept that confident cats will respond more readily to commands and that less confident cats need different strategies for training success. Rainy is our most unflappable cat. Aside from loud noises (and jealousy over foster cats), nothing fazes her. She’s also my training star. After months of training, Rainy can run an entire agility course with few rewards; she needs treats only for tunnels. Rainy readily accepts a leash, harness, and crate too. Combine these skills with her outgoing personality, and Rainy is a natural as a therapy cat. Although not perfect at obedience (especially when it comes to counter surfing), she’s also the most obvious choice for my upcoming cat training video series. The challenge of training confident cats is keeping them focused. Rainy wants to get into everything, and so I work a lot on “Watch me”.
Rainy doing agility in our basement
In contrast, Cinder is an anxious cat, and so she needs more instant gratification. To get her to run an agility course, I always carry treats in hand. In our earliest days of training, Cinder would growl at me if I didn’t immediately reward her with a treat for completing an obstacle. I’ve used the “Leave it” command to teach her patience. While these days she’s more willing to wait to receive a treat, she still needs to at least smell it, or she’s inclined to wander off course. Even better for Cinder has been my using a clicker after each successfully-completed obstacle. If she doesn’t hear the clicker, she’ll stare at me as if to ask, “What did I do wrong?” or “Was I supposed to do that obstacle?” Then she’ll return to my side and follow my command.
Cinder doing agility in our basement
You’ll notice in my agility videos of Rainy and Cinder that I treat them differently based on their temperament. Rainy is at the stage in our training that other than my using a treat as a lure, she’ll run a course simply in response to my commands. For that reason, I try to limit how much I reward her. I do click each time she successfully completes an obstacle so she receives some kind of accomplishment, but I reserve giving her with treats until the end. In addition, because Rainy thrives on attention, I make sure to praise her not only with my voice but also lots of hugs when she finishes a course. Cinder continues to need intermittent reinforcement. For that reason, the further into the course she goes or the more difficult an obstacle is, the greater likelihood that I’ll reward her with a treat the instant she completes an obstacle. In addition, because Cinder wilts at attention, I limit my praise to a cheer and a pat on the head.
In the beginning
No matter what a cat’s age or temperament, start with a favorite obstacle and build on it. With my first cat, Lucy, I trained her at first to do jumps and then later to do tunnels. At the time, I made the decision to teach only two obstacles, because of having a limited knowledge of how to create an agility course for next to nothing, but it had the benefit of allowing Lucy to master what most came natural to her. When I began teaching agility to our current three cats, we had several other obstacles available, and I made the mistake of trying to teach an entire course at one time. Consequently, not only did they fail to master an obstacle, they also didn’t learn to like agility. This became especially apparent to me when I took Rainy to a public venue and she refused to complete any of the obstacles. When I discovered that she felt most comfortable on the dog walk, I encouraged her to practice mostly on it. We’d start with it, return to it whenever she balked at another obstacle, and end with it. Eventually, Rainy became so good with the dog walk that I didn’t have to give her any treats to tackle it. Now when cat owners say that agility interests them, and that their cat likes such and such obstacle, I encourage them to start with that obstacle and build on it.
Rainy’s current progress: July 2018 after 18 months of training.
Some especially skilled trainers can work with a group, training one cat while the others remain in a sit-stay. These trainers show the height to which one can aspire. Currently, this height lies well beyond my reach. As our number of pets has increased, so has my need to individually train them.
Despite the extra time one-on-one training involves, I’ve grown to appreciate what it can reveal about my pets’ quirks. Noises scare Rainy, which made the teeter totter her greatest challenge. She disliked the loud thump that occurred when she stepped off the end of the teeter. For that reason, to help desensitize her to noise, my husband showed me how to play the ‘bang’ game with her. He held the up-end of the teeter close to the floor while I held a treat above it just out of Rainy’s reach. To get the treat, Rainy would have to step on the end of the teeter, whereupon the teeter would softly bang to the floor. As she became more comfortable with the sound, my husband raised the end of the teeter, so it made a louder bang when Rainy stepped on it. Eventually, Rainy stopped reacting to the noise of the teeter.
From my experience with Rainy, I’ve learned to break the training of other obstacles into smaller parts too. For example, to teach weaves to Cinder, I offered her a treat to lure her past a single pole. After Cinder mastered one pole, I repeated the step for a second pole, then a third, until she successfully completed all six. I then weaned her off treats by reinforcing her only when she weaved through two poles, then three, until she weaved around all six poles for one treat.
My husband and our dog Barnaby have taken agility classes for almost ten years, and in 2017 I began to want the same for Cinder and Rainy. I’d taught them what I could, using what I’d learned from online videos and Barnaby’s classes, on the amateur equipment in the living room of our rented house. Now I wanted them to experience the benefits of a public venue with professional trainers and equipment. But I encountered a problem. The local pet clubs were for dogs only. Starting my own cats-only agility club wasn’t feasible. Then I received permission from an out-of-town no-kill shelter to use their agility room. Although the location wasn’t ideal, I decided it was a step in the right direction. I could see how my cats reacted to a public venue and apply that knowledge to other cats. In addition, I could videotape our efforts to show to local pet clubs, with the goal of convincing them to give cat agility a try.
In our half dozen trips to the shelter, I probably learned as much about training cats as I had in all my previous years of working with them at home. One lesson I learned is that in unknown environments, it’s important to keep the number of variables to a minimum. I hadn’t yet learned this when I first introduced Rainy to the shelter’s agility room, but I soon would. Rain pinged off the building’s roof, dozens of dogs in the next room barked continuously, and shelter workers hung around the agility course taking photos. Rainy’s rigid body exuded stress. Lesson learned. I now knew that for Rainy to be successful in the future, I needed to control as many variables as I could. For that reason, the next time we visited I ensured the weather would be clear and I asked the shelter workers to allow Rainy time to acclimate before they visited.
A second lesson I learned is the scarier the adventure, the stronger the incentive must be. Despite my arranging for Rainy to have a more controlled environment, it remained an alien one. Even worse, it was replete with dog scents. Goat cheese turned out to be key. With it, I successfully lured Rainy across cat walks, up and down A-Frames, over jumps, and through tires. Ironically, the only obstacle that didn’t require any incentive was the tunnel. To get her into it, that is. Rainy considered the tunnel an ideal hiding place. The challenge was getting her to come out. Goat cheese to the rescue!
Rainy doing agility at the shelter
After the honeymoon
Fast forward to 2018. My husband and I have bought a house with a basement spacious enough for me to set up an agility course. I’ve discovered books and websites dedicated to training cats. My new work hours allow me to reserve an hour daily to one-on-one training with our four pets. I couldn’t ask for a better training life. But this led to a new problem: The cats and I got into a training rut. Our routine became so familiar, I could do it in my sleep.
To overcome our rut, I began to mix up our routine. Initially, I tried alternating between training our cats in agility one day and in obedience the next. For agility I taught a course in parts and as a unit, and for obedience I ran through a series of commands. For good measure, I occasionally added socialization in the form of outings or visitors. Because this mix lacked a sense of continuity, I switched tactics again. On the first of each week, I’d list one skill that the cats struggled with in each of agility, obedience, and socialization. Then each day, I’d spend a few minutes on each skill, for a total of about fifteen minutes per day.
I also began to allow myself moments of spontaneity. One day I sat and watched our cats meander around the course while I took notes. None of us found this activity all that fun, and I didn’t repeat it. Another experiment brought about better results. Cinder had fallen into the habit of running into one end of the tunnel for a treat and then running back out the same end. To break this habit, I tried a few tricks. One time, after she ran into the tunnel after a treat, I folded the tunnel up behind her and thereby forced her out the other side. Another time, after she ran into the tunnel after a treat, I ran a treat across the top of the rest of the tunnel, thereby encouraging her through the entire tunnel. My favorite trick happened by accident. After Cinder ran into the tunnel I began to lift it up and down, then shake it back and forth. This required Cinder to hunt down her treat, an activity which delights her, and that she loves for me to repeat.
Finally, I began to add challenges to our routine. This spring, I decided to wean Rainy off her dependence on treats for tackling tunnels. One day instead of tossing a treat into a tunnel, I simply beckoned towards it with my hand and said, “Tunnel!” To my delight, Rainy raced into the tunnel. Unfortunately, she instantly popped back out, when she realized there weren’t any treats inside. When I tried a second time, I used a clicker as soon as Rainy ran inside so that she’d know that she was doing the right thing. I also ran to the other end and placed a treat there. After a few tries, Rainy got the idea. Now as soon as I order her to tunnel, she races without hesitation to the other side.
Embrace the journey!
While you are teaching your cats, your cats will be teaching you. For example, Cinder taught me to respect each cat’s unique personality. After I started taking Rainy to a public agility venue, I decided to try Cinder at one too. In her earlier years with us, Cinder had shown a fondness for stroller rides in the park, and I figured that like Rainy she’d adapt to new environments. However, during Cinder’s first and only time at a public agility course, she refused to move. It didn’t matter what obstacle I introduced her to, she hunched into a ball, dug in her claws, and stared miserably at me. When she eventually discovered a tunnel, she retreated inside and refused to come out. I had to crawl in and get her. As for my training star, Rainy has taught me to accept that the training road may lead down unexpected paths. After a summer of road trips, I put aside dreams of competitive agility and set up an agility course in our basement. But our outings weren’t for naught. Thanks to her socialization training, I realized that Rainy would make an excellent therapy cat. This spring she received her certification papers.
This article is dedicated to the five cats with whom my husband and I have been fortunate enough to have shared our home. One of those cats died in 2013 from chronic kidney failure, three of them are part of our current family, and our foster kitten now has her forever home.