I’ll confess that I have not personally attempted to educate a cat. I did try to bathe one once and later reflected upon that decision as the most insane one I’d ever made. Not only did the cat protest with his weapons drawn, he showed up the next day as dirty as he had been before the bath. I have, however, educated Italian greyhounds and I’ve been told that their attitudes toward education are very similar to those of cats. If you try to threaten or force them, they’ll just walk out of the classroom and won’t return for the next lesson.
According to formerly secret documents about the CIA’s undercover operations during the Cold War, cats were trained to act as spies. Equipped with acoustic transmitter/receiver devices, felines would be directed to approach specific people in public places so that operatives could eavesdrop on their conversations from afar. Reportedly, the cats were directed to their targets in busy airports and on crowded city sidewalks. Once there, they would be asked to remain for a period of time and might then be directed to another target or to return to their “home” base.
The key element in the education of these kitty spies was what is known as a “keep-going signal” (KGS). If the cat went straight ahead and that was the desired direction, he would hear a sound – maybe something like “good-kitty, good-kitty, good-kitty, good.” If he veered off of the intended course, the sound would stop. The cat would then try another direction and when he heard the sound again, he would know he was on the right track and would continue on. The KGS had been conditioned as a secondary reinforcer – something that predicted the delivery of a primary reinforcer, like a tidbit of smoked herring or a rousing game of chase-the-wind-up-mouse. So the KGS would come to be thought of as the equivalent of a big, happy, wonderful, juicy YES!!!
Imagine the opposite. The cat veers off course and into his receiver he hears “No! That’s wrong! Stop! Go the other way! Not that way, the other way.” What might that predict? Maybe that when or if he returns he's going to get some kind of CIA smack-down. I can just imagine the look on the little kitty spy’s face at being bombarded with such negative input; in fact, I’ve seen that look before. Who wants to keep playing when the game is no fun?
Early on, I recognized the effect of the word “NO” on my canine partner, Jack. Not only did he seem to receive it as a virtual slap in the face, it was an educational dead-end. It gave him nothing to go on; it flattened his interest and squashed his creativity. I tried very hard not to use it and quickly realized how much a part of our response to life it is. We are always resisting the unwanted, responding to it with amplified feelings and remedial actions. We seem to like to wait until things go “wrong” just so we can become reactive and throw out some “NOs.” I wondered why we didn’t concentrate on ways to say “yes” instead – looking for and commenting on good experiences. Why don’t we tell the people and the dogs in our lives about everything they do that we like and want? To extinguish my inclination to “NOing” I decided to come up with some “Yes” games and ways to use keep-going signals.
Hide Five Treats is a game that Jack and I play often. Although he can certainly sniff out the booty, he has become accustomed to using my “yes” signals to direct him instead. He waits in a room while I go into another and hide five treats; I then release him. When he is oriented in the right direction to find one, I say the word “yes.” As he gets closer to the target, I say it faster; when he is very close, I increase the pitch of my voice and say it so fast that it is almost a single tone. When he hears that, he sniffs out the immediate area until he locates the treat. If he is not oriented toward a treat or begins to go in the wrong direction he simply hears nothing. This prompts him to try something else.
In education particularly, I have practiced eliminating the word “no.” I give some forethought to how I might encourage certain actions, postures or behaviors and I have taught myself to look for tiny things to approve of and mark so that Jack keeps learning and the education game stays fun. The rewards have been tremendous. Jack has a cue library of over 100 words and thespian and comedic achievements that will keep you entertained for a long while. He has mastered object handling and developed the ability to discriminate between same and different, big and little, left and right, up and down, and into and on. And he accomplished all of that through the happy application of affirmatives. (If you want to see an example of his work search for “IggyJack” on http://www.youtube.com/.)
We can actually train ourselves to watch for and even expect what we want when we stop using the word “no.” Our relationships transform from negative refusals to happy affirmations. The dogs in our lives begin to live in an experience of constant celebration. What other simple little change has such enormous positive potential? Try it. “Yes!” And, if you happen to also be partnered with a kitty, you can actually use it to prepare her for a career in clandestine services.