Rebecca Park Scholarship Winning Essay
Twice a year, IAABC holds a contest for a Rebecca Park Scholarship, which grants the winner a free place on the IAABC Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice online course. The following essay was the winning entry for Spring’s scholarship, and was written by Allison Hunter-Frederick.
“Wow! I can’t believe that you are scamming people just to make some bucks. And when they see all that they would have to do, plus pay for volunteering their time, what a discouragement it is to people who really just want to take their dog around and make people feel happy. It was enough to ALMOST discourage me until I decided to call SEVERAL nursing homes and check it out myself. You don’t need this ridiculous certification you speak of. You’re discouraging people from fulfilling a much-needed community involvement! Once again, SHAME ON YOU!”
My high spirits plummeted as I read the email. The woman had written me to ask how she could get her dog certified for pet therapy. In response, I’d asked her a few questions about her dog’s personality to ensure that the dog would be comfortable meeting new people, visiting new places, and encountering new situations. I’d also sent her a short list of local and national certifying organizations for dogs. It hurt that instead of saying thanks, she accused me of profiting off of “ridiculous” certification. Since that email, I’ve become even more disheartened as I’ve realized how many pet owners fail to recognize the importance of certification in pet therapy.
My cat Rainy and I have been a cat therapy team for 15 months, but her training began several years ago. When Rainy was still a kitten, I introduced her to a carrier, leash, and harness. I also taught her basic obedience commands such as Come, Sit, Stay, and Leave It.
Once I knew I wanted to certify Rainy as a therapy cat, I sought information on the process. Unfortunately, while I found several organizations in my area and my state that certify dogs, I found none for cats. Even on a national level, only two exist for cats. The drawback to one of these organizations, Pet Partners, is that it requires the team to attend an in-person evaluation, which is problematic for those who don’t live near any of the scheduled evaluations. I applied instead to the second organization, Love on a Leash, which offers certification based on a Control Evaluation completed by one’s veterinarian and ten supervised therapy visits. Because I wanted to be thorough in our training, I also prepped Rainy to handle the items on the Pet Partners cat therapy exam and the Canine Good Citizen exam.
In the spring of 2018, Rainy and I became the first certified cat therapy team in our area. I am proud of our certification. It validates the time and work it took us to become a pet therapy team. We’re also not resting on our laurels. This year Rainy and I have expanded our visits beyond senior citizens to include young people. I’ve also taken on the role of supervising other pet therapy teams.
I have also been applying a professional mindset to training my cats. By observing my husband train our dog at home and in agility classes, I learned how to teach both obedience and agility to our cats. It naturally followed that sooner or later I’d try clicker training with my cats. In 2017, I finally did, but found it a struggle. While I did purchase books on clicker training, I felt continually frustrated by having no one to ask questions of when I failed to make progress. All this changed when, through social media, I discovered other cat owners who were not only passionate about training their cats but were sharing their efforts. Suddenly I could view and dissect training videos to my heart’s content. Imagine my elation when I then found online cat training schools. These gave me immediate access to step-by-step lessons and enthusiastic instructors willing to answer my questions.
Despite the fact that a world exists outside my town that is far more accepting of cat training, or perhaps because of this fact, my town remains my first audience. Since 2016, when I began posting stories about my cats, I’ve heard people change their comments from “Cats can’t do that!” to “I wish my cats could do that!” Even so, there’s much more work to be done. We have an abundance of dog rescues but only one dedicated cat shelter; at least ten dog training groups but not a single cat class (not even a kitten kindergarten); one dog cognition lab that has no plans to expand its focus to include cats; and a few dog behaviorists but no one outside of our local humane society who specializes in cat behavior. Earlier this year, a dog training business asked me if I’d be interested in developing and teaching cat behavior seminars for them. When I allow myself flights of fancy, I dream of eventually being able to teach classes in cat obedience, cat agility, and cat therapy.
“Do you know any good tips to get a kitten to stop biting? A friend’s sister got a new kitten that lost its mom very young and is a terrible biter. They’re trying to put the kitten on the ground when it bites but it’s a challenge.”
Before I began seriously training my cats, I volunteered in animal rescue, where I soon realized that the best way to reduce animal surrenders is to address the causes. This led me to write articles for a local animal welfare blog. Many of my earliest articles were about pet care or were profiles of pet lovers. As I matured as a pet educator, I began to write articles that addressed specific causes of animal surrender. Some of those causes, such as an elderly person going into assisted living, weren’t ones for which I could provide practical solutions, but other causes, such as a pet owner struggling to cover the financial cost of veterinary bills, were ones for which I could offer advice.
For a long time, I thought advocacy through writing would be enough, but life has a funny way of leading us down unexpected roads. The more I interacted with cat owners, the more I discovered how much I loved problem-solving their cats’ behavior issues. This past year I decided I didn’t want to educate through my writing alone, but wanted to do phone consults too. Since taking on this volunteer activity with a local shelter, I’ve experienced the elation of helping to restore peace to a few homes. For example, one cat owner accidentally brought upheaval to her cat when she renovated her apartment. Her cat reacted to the sudden change by scratching and biting the new furniture. After some discussion, we decided that the best course of action would be to temporarily return some of the old furniture while at the same time protecting the new furniture. Another cat owner felt dismay when, despite their best efforts to follow the protocol for introducing a second cat, the new kitten became territorial. After asking her a few questions, we realized that while the designated cat room had plenty of enrichment, the rest of the house lacked it, and that was where the aggression was taking place.
Ironically, the more I’ve tried to help cat owners through my articles and consults, the more I realized how little I know about cats. Since the beginning I’ve relied on research-based materials for the foundation of my articles. Over time I’ve also begun to look for other ways to increase my knowledge and experience. I now consult with veterinarians and pet specialists when writing articles about pet behavior and health. Fostering kittens through our local shelter has allowed me to see firsthand how cats grow and what their needs are. I also participate in online cat behavior forums, which keeps me in touch with the kinds of real-world problems that cat owners face.
The IAABC Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice course would immerse me in the many facets of animal behavior consulting that I currently lack. My greatest need is a science foundation. The course would also connect me with additional experts in the field. By taking this robust course, I’d take a giant step toward becoming certified as a cat behavior consultant, which would allow me to write, teach, and counsel with greater professionalism.