Note: this story was originally submitted to Chicken Soup for the Soul. Given that it’s been two years since then and I’ve not heard back, I assume they don’t want it, so here’s a silly story for your rainy Tuesday!
You have to understand, I was about eleven years old at the time, and right then teaching my cat to do tricks seemed like the best idea ever.
Most people associate SeaWorld with marine life, but when my family visited, we also saw a show full of cats and dogs trained to weave their way through obstacle courses. Not only was it inspiring because all the animals had been rescued from shelters, it was just plain awesome, and hey, if they could do it at SeaWorld, surely I could do it, too, right? I had qualifications, after all, like being a cat owner, and dumb enough to try.
That was how poor Taffy found himself trapped in my parents’ bedroom, perched on their dresser while I tried to coax him into jumping from the dresser to the bed through a hoop. Why I chose that particular feat, I have no idea—perhaps there was a hula hoop handy in the garage. Certainly we were lacking in spare tires, evenly spaced rows of wooden posts, and all the other cool things they had at SeaWorld. Then again, if my first try was successful, I could always move on to bigger and more complex tricks in the future. Acquire some tires, build an obstacle course. The possibilities were endless.
It will surprise no one that Taffy wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the whole thing. Sure, he’d jump from the dresser to the bed because that was the most direct route to freedom, but he wouldn’t go near the hoop. Nor would he jump on cue, probably because “cue” was this obnoxious hissing noise I kept making in order to encourage (let’s face it, frighten) him off the dresser. I would place him on top of it, gently tap his back legs, hiss at him—and eventually he would jump, sometimes to the bed, sometimes down to the floor. At that point he’d run straight for the door—which I’d closed in advance, of course. As every good cat trainer knows, it’s imperative to preemptively cut off all escape routes or risk a very short training session.
Pick up cat. Place on dresser. Hiss. Repeat. Really, it’s amazing all the hissing was coming from me.
My initial attempts producing somewhat less than satisfactory results, I moved to Plan B, a complex and highly sophisticated system consisting of two parts:
Part 1: Behavioral scientists and animal trainers call it positive reinforcement, but in my mind it was pretty much a cat-treat-shaped bribe. To my delight, I discovered that if I placed a treat on the bed, Taffy was much happier to jump—and then stay on the bed long enough for me to grab him before he ran for the door. Increased number of jumps + less reset time? Genius, thy name is eleven-year-old Kate.
Part 2: Hoop manipulation. Since Taffy remained reluctant to leap through that round thing I kept waving in his face, I started moving it as he jumped so that he had no choice but to go through it—except on those occasions when my split-second hoop-cat alignment was less than precise. (Sorry, Taffy.) Apparently I had depth perception problems in addition to high levels of stupidity and optimism.
Plan, check. Forward-through-the-hoop unto the breach!
Pick up cat. Place on dresser. Set treat on bed. Hiss. Frantically move hoop into position. Repeat.
Whether any actual training went on, I can’t say, but somehow I doubt it. My eleven-year-old self didn’t know that, though. By the end of what was at least half an hour and probably more, Taffy was regularly jumping from dresser to bed through the hoop, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Sure, he hadn’t quite got the hang of it yet, but it was a promising start, and I couldn’t wait to tell my parents that I’d started training Taffy to do tricks. Obstacle course, here we come!
And then a whole bag of cat treats hit Taffy’s stirred-up stomach all at once, and, well….
Perhaps it was time to train my little sisters to clean up cat barf instead.