Friday, June 6, 2008

Brancusi? You're Done!

Of my two cats, Brancusi is the most neurotic.

One of his peculiar habits is to be overly freaked out by any hint of litter box smell. He is the one who will come and talk at me if the litter box is getting a little too stinky. Because I understand so clearly what he is going on about (unlike other times when he is clearly chattering away about anything and everything like a 4 year old), I have no problem with this and get right to changing the litter.

But sometimes he gets all frantic when he himself has just taken a pee or a poop. He covers it up like a good cat should, scratching up a little mound over the offending offal, etcetera.

But with his highly-sensitive nose, simply covering it is not enough. Because he can still *smell* it, you see? So he keeps scratching. And since he doesn't want to dirty his paws further, he will instead scratch the wall, the side of the porcelain fixtures, the door. It gets very irritating to listen to, not to mention damaging to the wall.

If you go to the door of the bathroom and yell at him, he will burst forth with a little guilty squeal of fear. Guilty because he knows that if Mama is yelling at him that he must have done something wrong (although with his little brain, he's not exactly sure what), and fear because sometimes I get so irritated with his obsessive scratching that I will give him a little squirt of water to deter him. Truly, sometimes the only thing that will pry him away from his scratching is to fling a little water on him. But then he will sometimes go out in the hallway to scratch some more.

Ah, what a sweet, compulsive cat he is.

Now, it's hard to ignore all this carrying on when one is trying to get some work done. Scratch, scratch, scratch, moving from box to wall to porcelain. The part of my brain that can identify sounds from across the house has this down pat. But if it goes on too long, I'll lose patience and yell at him from across the house. Granted, our house is not very big, so I don't have to yell far. Since this of course, rarely works, I then feel compelled to get up and menace him in person. Because we know how well that works (not). This is where the squirting comes in.

He knows I don't like this. He know he will get yelled at and probably squirted, but he can't help himself. Meanwhile, I am tired of escorting him out of the bathroom. And believe me, I've tried ignoring him, but the sound wears on my nerves too badly. (Although not as badly as his nails on matte plaster walls. Oy.)

Recently, I noticed that as soon as I came to the door, he'd go shooting past me with that little squeal *Mrrh!* even if I didn't squirt him. Hmmm. So his little brain has locked on to the pattern. Mama yells and he gets squirted leaving the bathroom. What if I changed the pattern a little? He already has learned that if I call him in a certain way, it means food, i.e. "Oookaaaay! It's time for dinner!!" In fact, I have to be careful to not use that intonation in everyday conversation or else the cats will mistakenly think "food!" They also recognize their name calls that I use to summon them for food or snuggles. They also respond very well to praise; in fact, they are both completely addicted to attention. Hmmm.

Thus began operation anti-scratch.

I wanted to train him (I mean, manipulate him) to stop scratching, and the first step was to be able to cue him from a distance rather than having to go to the scene in person. And using a call that would be distinctive enough to communicate a specific idea.

So I would yell, I mean, call out his name (branCUsi!), and then tell him "You're done!" The first couple of times, I stood outside the door and when he would come shooting out, I'd coo at him in praise and rub him down (he likes rubdowns like a dog). He ate it up. See, Mama isn't mad, just glad you stopped scratching already!

Soon, I could yell "BranCUsi! You're done!" from the office, and he would come shooting out with a little Mrrt!, running straight to me to get praised and have his ears rubbed. "GOOD boy, BranCUsi! You covered up your poop, ... and then you stopped!" haha Only now, his squeal has changed to a little bird noise of anticipation.

My husband thinks this is hysterical. Cat training works! he says. I'm not completely convinced that my directive is functioning as a direct command, but I keep reinforcing the new pattern, and maybe it'll stick. And even if not, I can at least shift my cat's neurotic tendencies for the better.

Now I wonder, what else can I tweak? I'm still working on myself.

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