Adventures in Service Cat Training.
World's Cutest Kitten Goes To Work.
Some animals have it, others don't. A service animal needs to be able to cope with the rigors of daily life for it's partner, because we can't do those things for ourselves. "A service animal is not a pet" is repeated a zillion times. That means, first and foremost you and your needs come first.
Willetta is five months old now. She's still a bit flighty for too much training, but I'm going to start her on the easier tasks. She needs three tasks that she can perform on command to be legal. They cannot be something a pet cat would do normally, they must relate specifically to my disabilities. She must be trained to behave well in public at all times, to walk on a leash and always be under control.
So far, she is harness and leash trained. She rides nicely in shopping cart baskets. If something frightens her, I just hold her and let her investigate from the safety of being held. Usually once does it. I purposely take her around noisy grasscutters, construction noises, what ever I can find, or what ever she looks startled at. She rides in the passenger side, and I'll be getting a safety seat for her soon.
The first thing I'll teach her is to be an obnoxious nag. She already knows how to do this, believe me! All I do is reinforce her natural tendencies to work for me. In the first case, to bug me to take my medications until I actually do. This may involve waking me up, getting my attention off the computer (much more difficult) or distracting me from whatever I am hyper-focused on. Not only will this be the easiest to train, but it's something I have a problem with that needs to be corrected as soon as possible. I need a more reliable timer, but I'll start with just my alarm clock.
The hardest part of any training is that I have to be consistent. Obviously, I have a problem with this, or I wouldn't need the service. It would be nice if I had an experienced trainer to help me, but the only one I know trains dogs and is allergic to cats, so she is an adviser only. Most the training guides out there are for dogs, but hey, Willetta and I are adaptable.
She will also be trained to let me know if someone is at the door, the phone rings, or she hears an emergency vehicle close by. To pat me if I am having an anxiety attack, the distraction and being able to hold her breaks the pattern. She will also fetch a small, special phone if I fall and it's not on me. I may get one that just dials 911 and teach her to call under the right circumstances. Now you see why I am starting with the easy tasks!
Training kids, training cats
I rarely leave the house anymore without one of the children asking if Willetta can come out for a walk. As I get further into Willetta's training, I'm less sure about letting the children walk her. But as I watched them gather around her today, each demanding politely a turn with her, I realized it wasn't just Willetta I am training.
These are a really remarkable bunch of children. I think the oldest is about 10, the youngest still not speaking in full sentences, but he can already skateboard. For the most part, they play happily together, watch out for each other and protect the youngest. Squabbles are short and made up quickly. No bullies in this part of the complex, and we all keep a sharp eye out for any that appear. There is always at least one parent in attendance, more as more children get home from school.
Some of the children have half siblings to Willetta, just a month older. One group doesn't have any animals because the Dad doesn't want them, and the little girls are kitten-starved, They come from seven families, and of course, quite varied situations. But when it comes to Willetta, they automatically take turns. Sometimes who's turn and how long is hotly disputed, and she always gets tired before every one gets a turn, but they are good about it.
Some of them are natural animal lovers. One small boy, not yet three, reached out and gently stroked her the first time he met her. There are no animals in his household. But there was the same rapt look in two pairs of blue eyes.
Today was beautiful. One of the neighbors had friends over for a barbecue. These uninitiated folks looked a little bemused when I re-emerged with a small white cat wearing a bright blue vest and walking on a multicolored leash. Children who had been playing all over the court suddenly converged on one spot. The adults looked a bit shocked, my neighbors are so used to it now that I don't think they explained for a few minutes what was going on. Some of my neighbors wandered over to say their own greetings to Willetta and chuck her under the chin. Even the dad who doesn't like animals forgot himself and tickled her and spoke to her like she is a person. He may be beginning to catch up to his childrens level of understanding some day.
I have to explain, usually every time because some of the children are so young, that Willetta has rules and must be walked in a certain way. No yanking on the leash. No screaming our shouting around her...that's actually for me. Only one child touching the leash at a time. Never, ever drag her. Respect her as a being all her own, and her status as my helper. The one child touching the leash at a time is a hard one for them. Willetta is often so surrounded by her fans that she really can't walk much. Today one toddler picked her up, he couldn't quite hold her properly and her eyes crossed a little bit more, but she never struggled. Before I could reach them, three little girls had rescued her.James, the little boy was quite offended. She may have been in a slightly awkward position, but he knows not to hold her too tight. He's a rough and tumble boy, big for his age, but he's gentle with Willetta. He may grab her tail and hold on, but he never pulls it. Again, the crowd of mini mamas rescue Willetta and sooth James frustration.
In time, Willetta was tired and wanted to come to mommy. At this point I get a lot of protests that they haven't had their turn, that she didn't walk for them, they hadn't gotten to hold her. I explain she is a child, just like they are, and she gets tired and needs to lay down. I get hugs and thank you's and the children scatter back to their games.
Now, I am one of them. They break off playing to come say hi or give me a hug. Oh, those hugs are sweet to someone who has no grandkids of her own. Today for the first time, my little redheaded boy came to me and took my hand and wanted to show me something. The "something" turned out to be two of the visiting children wildly riding one of those rides on a spring. They were totally delighted and totally delightful! I have no idea why he wanted to show me that, but he was right, I loved it. After a few more minutes of wild riding, the child on the back hopped off and offered Issac his seat. The happy yells of all three little boys mingled with the background noise of Tag! and My turn! and the smell of good barbecue.
Back inside, I collapsed on the couch, and Willetta sensibly collapsed in front of Moosie, who immediately began to groom her. Watching her look smugly ecstatic and seeing his look of rapt adoration, I think she got the better part of the deal. But then after all, she was the one entertaining a large group of children!