Human Obedience Training


[Walk up to the podium, drape on it bonelessly, close eyes. Wait 5 heartbeats. Open eyes, stretch hugely, arch back, blink at audience.]

BANDIT:

Good morning. I'm Bandit, and I'm here to teach you how to train your human in obedience.

[Yawn, showing teeth. Blink at audience. Begin to pad back and forth across the stage. ]

The underlying principle of any training regimen is something the psychologists call "operant conditioning". You shape your human's behavior by systematically reinforcing successively closer approximations to the behavior you desire.

What's reinforcement? The common cat thinks of reinforcements as rewards and punishments. That's not quite true. To me, quite frankly, the whole idea of rewards and punishments is wrongheaded. Most of the time the poor human CAN'T do all that you want. Even so, at any time he is doing his very best. To me, it is cruel to punish a human when he's doing his very best.

Technically speaking, reinforcement is any consequence that increases the probability of a behavior. There are two kinds of reinforcement, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is a pleasing consequence, like purring or stropping or popping with your head or letting him rub your tummy after he emits the behavior. Negative reinforcement is a mildly annoying consequence that can be halted or avoided by emitting the behavior.

I'm really hungry this morning, so I'll demonstrate with a bit of negative reinforcement. Don left a lot of beer bottles lying around when he went to bed last night. They're stinky, but they make a lot of noise when I knock them over.

[ Bat at bottles. Crashing sound effects. Speak to audience.]

Now watch.

DON:

[Roaring slowly]

Hey, stop that!

[Don comes shuffling into the room scratching under his armpits.]

Dad nab it.

[ Stumbles around pantomiming pouring out food. Stumbles back out of the room. ]


BANDIT:

[Looking amusedly at the audience.]

See? I can get him to feed me any time of the day or night, by just doing one of a series of quite simple and enjoyable things, like scratching on the furniture, knocking something off a table, or bouncing up and down on his chest while he's trying to sleep.

Of course, this is the end result of months of training. When I first acquired Don, he was completely untrained. Imagine what I went through to get him trained! Leaving him little gifts to teach him to keep my catbox clean! Stealing water from his toilet to teach him to change the water in my water dish! Eeeewwww!

I can see it in the set of your ears. "How did you get such wonderful results?" It required a systematic procedure. For instance, to train him to feed me properly, I applied continuous reinforcement of any even remotely relevant response. I'd wake him before dawn, and at first I'd let him chase me into the basement. Then I'd scratch his antique wood desk, and let him chase me into the kitchen. Then I'd eat some of his breakfast, and let him chase me as far as the food dish. Finally completely at random he put some food in the food dish, and I immediately applied some positive reinforcement by stropping his leg and purring, and chowed down.

At that point he had learned the basic behavior. You never want to overtrain your human, because then he loses all initiative. I immediately changed my reinforcement schedule to "intermittent reinforcement". Weeks would pass. He would start by feeding me regularly, but as time went on he'd get more and more erratic until finally I simply had to put a claw in. A broken vase, a wakeup at dawn, a few scratches on the new sofa, and he would snap right back in line.

So here are some key points for you to remember when you start obedience training your human. No human is untrainable. Even the most intractable can be trained by systematically reinforcing successive approximations to the desired behavior by positive and negative reinforcement. Start with continuous reinforcement until your human learns the basic behavior, then switch to intermittent reinforcement to establish it firmly. And above all, persevere! Remember, no human is untrainable!

[ Return to the podium and drape yourself over it, closing your eyes. Don stumbles back into the room. ]


DON:

Heee Bandiit! You want your fish!


BANDIT:

[ Open eyes, address the audience in a confidential tone.]

Now this is my new project. I'm trying to teach him how to fetch my catnip fish.


DON:

Here Bandit! Get your fish!

[Waves it in front of him, then tosses it.]


BANDIT:

Now I go get it and bring it to a carefully calculated spot. If I put it down too far away, he won't get up to pick it up and throw it again. If it's too close, he won't improve. Yesterday he got up and fetched it from 6 feet away. Maybe today he'll go for 7.

[ Picks up the fish, walks it to a spot, drops it, waits.]


DON:

Dog gone it! Why won't you just bring it?

[ Gets up, picks up the fish, tosses it.]

BANDIT:

Good boy!

18-Feb-2007