Nine Lives, One Leash

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article in the New York Times!!!

Published: December 28, 2011

THERE are outdoor cats and there are indoor cats. When I brought home Mac, a 4-year-old orange tabby, from a shelter last year, I realized I had acquired a demanding combination of the two.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Mac, the author’s tabby, shows how training and patience pay off. No pigeons or mourning doves were harmed during this excursion to the park.  (Check out the original aritcal to see a video of Mac’s “before” and “after”!)

While he liked a cozy bed and two squares a day, Mac had a style that was apparently cramped by my one-bedroom apartment, and he dashed outside whenever I opened the door to my deck, returning hours later.

The idea of walking him on a leash came after a series of unleashed mishaps. He killed a mourning dove, wounded a pigeon, tore a drumstick off a turkey that a neighbor had left cooling in his window and hung from another neighbor’s screen door close to midnight so that she awoke in terror.

Mac wasn’t winning any friends in the apartment building. And I realized that letting a cat get into trouble seven stories above Brooklyn’s streets was dangerous.

But when I cut off his access to the great outdoors, my cat, usually spunky and friendly, threw himself against the door, yowled and attacked my legs with frustration and sharp claws. I’d heard about cat walking on an Animal Planet show, “My Cat From Hell,” (its second season starts Jan. 7), starring a cat behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy. In one episode, he advised an owner to leash-walk his cat as a way to burn off extra feline energy. So I bought a Chihuahua harness and fastened it onto a writhing Mac. He keeled over and refused to budge until I removed it.

Clearly, we both needed professional help.

Mr. Galaxy is one of a growing number of animal behaviorists who believe that training and walking cats is not only possible, but good for the cat. They say that cats need lots of human attention, and are not the solitary, selfish creatures they’re often thought to be: less Mr. Bigglesworth and more Bustopher Jones, the cat about town.

Because cats don’t learn by discipline, owners have only recently begun to see them respond to training as positive reinforcement has become popular, said Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The antecedent is old, he said: Edward Thorndike’s circa-1900 puzzle-box experiments, proving animals could learn behaviors, were performed on cats. “People are developing a broader, more deep bond with their pets, and want to do things with them,” Dr. Zawistowski said.

Walking a cat on a leash strikes a good balance between having an indoor cat that lives to old age but in an unstimulating environment and an outdoor cat that can kill birds or get killed itself. “Here’s a way for your cat to go outside and enjoy the outdoors, but under a protective umbrella,” he said. I scheduled a visit with Mr. Galaxy and set out to make Mac into a pedicat.

With his bandanna, long goatee and many tattoos, Mr. Galaxy looked more like a Harley person than a cat person. He worked at cat shelters for nine years before becoming a professional animal behaviorist (he charges $375 for a two-hour in-home consultation), and believes that almost all cat problems can be solved.

But Mr. Galaxy said cat owners also need some behavior modification. “We don’t say, ‘It’s O.K. to leave a cat for 14 hours at a stretch with an automatic feeder and an automatic litter box,’ ” he said. “That doesn’t work. My advice to people like that is, get fish.”

We started by settling on Mac’s reward: his favorite treats, meat-flavored biscuits called Greenies. From now on, “the only time you’re ever going to give that treat is when you’re working the harness,” he said.

I also had to make sure Mac was hungry when we started each session, so he would respond to the treats. Cats will not do what you want just to please you, unlike dogs, Mr. Galaxy said. “As soon as he’s full, it’s over.”

I fastened the harness on Mac, and Mr. Galaxy told me to give him a treat immediately. “He’s got to know this action equals reward, and he has an attention span of about two seconds,” he said.

Then, he had me move a few steps away, shake the bag of food at Mac and call him. I’d move back, give him a treat when he approached, and repeat. After about 15 minutes in the harness, Mac’s tail was swishing and he had dropped to the ground.

End it here, Mr. Galaxy said — you want to leave the cat feeling confident. During harness time, Mr. Galaxy was also constantly praising the cat with head pats and lots of “Good boys.” The cat nestled at his feet as soon as the harness was off.

Mr. Galaxy left me with directions to break the walking-outside goal into small steps before finally going out on the street. “For every cat, this side of the line is comfort and on this side of the line is challenge,” he said. “Every day, your job is to keep him at that line and then put one paw over it.” By the next day, Mac started purring when I took out the harness and the treats.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times


Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

We did take it slow, though. Day 4, out on the deck, Mac would walk a few feet, then sink to the ground. Day 14, he would walk a few feet, then sink to the ground. Day 30, we had made it to the lobby, where he would walk a few feet, then sink to the ground. Or, for variation, he would run up the lobby stairs and hide. How to feel like a chump: standing in an apartment lobby with a clearly terrified cat, one that is wearing a leash.

Mr. Galaxy advised that I make Mac walk a little longer between treats. And if he freaked out, I was to return to the previous setting until he was confident there again. Finally, Mr. Galaxy said, I needed to stop picking up the cat when he seemed nervous, an act that would undermine the cat and teach him to be too dependent on me.

Residents in my building were starting to greet Mac by name, offer him a hand to sniff and ask me about walking techniques or whether they could walk their rabbit. And when we returned to the apartment, Mac would still attack my legs occasionally, but more often he’d rub against my legs then take a nap on top of the television.

On the street, he was still timid. He would flatten himself when he saw a skateboarder, a cement truck or a dog.

I figured that if Mac couldn’t relax on city streets, he might in a park. So I put Mac into his carrier, took the subway and, inside Prospect Park, attached his leash before letting him out of his carrier.

The cat was black-eyed with fear and climbed up my jeans. I tried again, in a no-dogs-allowed area that was wooded and hilly. There, Mac pushed his head out of his carrier, looked around and took a few tentative steps. Then he was off. Tail up, head up, he ran along trails, stepped on logs and crashed through twigs. That cat was walking.

He was moving in a way I’d never seen him move in the apartment, reacting to bird calls with ear twitches, walking leopard-like along fallen trees, burrowing his nose into holes and testing trunks with his paws. He wandered, turned and tangled himself in his leash, and he looked back at me every now and then to make sure I was still with him. Back home, he purred, curled up and slept for most of the day; this is your cat on exercise.

Mr. Galaxy met me and Mac in the park on a cold December day to watch us walk. He was jubilant about the cat’s progress, but had some more advice. When Mac froze at the sight of a dog or a jogger, I shouldn’t freeze, but should calmly redirect his attention by calling him toward a different spot.

Six months after I started, I have a relaxed cat, a new admiration for his pluck and agility and, probably, a growing reputation as the weird cat lady. Taking my cat to the park is a great outing, and if Mac is never going to trot alongside me as I walk to brunch, that’s O.K. He is a cat, after all, and I’ve learned that means he’ll only do what he wants to do.

He’s trained me pretty well, I’d say.

Steps in the Right Direction

WISHING for a pedicat of your own? Here are tips from Jackson Galaxy for training your cat   on a leash.

1. Know your cat. If it doesn’t mind being handled, is pretty confident and not easily spooked, it’s probably a good candidate for leash training.

2. Get the right gear. It is not safe to walk cats on a traditional collars; if they escape up a tree, a breakaway collar will detach, while a standard collar can strangle them. Mr. Galaxy prefers two styles of walking jackets, though a harness made for a cat is also fine.

3. Hungry is good. Many cats respond to food treats, so start with a hungry cat. Cut treats into tiny pieces, because when a cat gets full, it will stop working. Only give the cat treats when you’re doing the training, and limit the overall amount.

4. Start small. In the first session, place the harness on the cat with confidence, and fit it snugly but not tightly. The moment you’ve finished putting it on, give your cat a treat. If the cat then falls to the ground and plays dead, give it a treat if it moves at all. If it is willing to try walking in the harness, give it a treat when it takes a step. The moment the cat starts seeming overwhelmed, remove the harness and give a treat to end on a high note. Throughout the process, give lots of praise and head pats.

5. Set goals. Push the cat a little farther each day, by breaking up leash walking into small steps. When it walks around each new area with its tail up, it’s ready for the next step.

6. Expect some setbacks. If the cat is afraid of something, try to redirect its attention to another area. If the cat completely freaks out, retreat to the previous area you were walking until it is confident again. Try not to pick up the cat, which erases its confidence.

7. Be careful if your neighborhood has lots of off-leash dogs; consider taking the cat to an area that’s more protected. Don’t let the cat chew on or lick anything. Substances that are common on streets, like ethylene glycol in radiator coolant, taste sweet to cats but are potentially lethal, says Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the A.S.P.C.A.

And prevent your cat from climbing trees on a leash. It’s not safe.


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