Recently I had a client call about her deaf cat. She wanted to train him to come inside when she called because he needed medication in the morning and evening. Giving the medicine in the morning was no sweat, simply because he was in the house and "catchable." Giving the evening medicine was an absolute nightmare. You guessed it—Spartacus the cat wasn't exactly thrilled about returning home knowing what his fate was. Plus, this cat had the added attraction, or distraction, of playing with the neighbor's dog. (Yes, you read that right, playing with the neighbor's dog.)
Step one was to see exactly how we could make medicine time easier. One problem was that Spartacus associated positive punishment (receiving a squirt of thyroid medication down his throat) with returning home. The other problem was that Spartacus was receiving lots of positive reinforcement playing with his favorite playmate. At this point, the only way my client was able to get her cat to come home was to make a phone call to her neighbor asking that the dog friend be called inside, too.
I discovered several other things making medicine time unpleasant. My client was giving the medicine facing Spartacus. When she would walk toward him head-on, he would run away. Why? He knew that the head-on approach was a precursor to the medicine. Using water, I showed my client how to medicate by liquid syringe, with the cat facing away from her. I used shaping and a small LED light.
Our session started with the cat looking at my client who flashed the light and tossed a tuna treat. (Remember, Spartacus was deaf, so the light acted as a clicker to mark desired behavior.) We soon progressed to the cat approaching us instead of my client approaching the cat. Then we worked on my client approaching the cat while I marked and rewarded the cat. (My client didn't realize that she had almost turned herself into a poisoned cue.)
After the shaping process of approaching Spartacus, picking him up, putting him in her lap facing away from her, and seeing the syringe was completed, all in steps, we talked more about the syringe. Why was "yucky" medicine the only thing that ever came out of the syringe? Why not randomly reward Spartacus with tuna juice or baby food via the syringe? We also talked about different flavors, like chicken, that pharmacies can add to prescriptions these days and that reduce the bitter taste of the medicine. Let's face it—if I were forced to eat something I'd rather not, like a grasshopper, I'd rather it be covered in chocolate!
Consider consequences and the order of events
The accidental misuse of food rewards was another obstacle to overcome. My client had been sticking the syringe in some canned kitty food to "trick" Spartacus into wanting the syringe. She then wondered why he started to snub wet food. Of course, my client was accidentally conditioning Spartacus that wet food meant bitter medicine to follow.
The important part of changing behavior is the consequence. There is a huge difference between giving a dog peanut butter and then clipping nails, and clipping nails and then giving peanut butter. The first will condition peanut butter as a bad thing, while the second will condition nail trimming as a good thing. The order of events is very important. Think of it this way—would you want to eat cheesecake and the follow it up with a nice helping of Brussels sprouts? If that was what I could expect, I'd sure shy away from cheesecake!
A new schedule
For Spartacus, receiving his medicine needed to be followed by good things only. So the morning schedule evolved to medicine first thing in the morning, followed by breakfast, wet food, petting, and, of course, the privilege of going outside to play with the neighbor's dog. As the morning medication issues were being solved, some of the problems in the evening began to go away, too.
The second part of the evening solution took out-of-the-box thinking. We solicited help from my client's neighbor, asking her to bring her dog inside at dusk. It wasn't an exact time, but using the sunset we had a very clear visual cue. For Spartacus, sunset meant dinnertime. Before long, my client had a happy cat, one that returned home at sunset every day. To ensure that there was no longer a connection between coming home and getting medicine, the medicine was given a bit later in the evening, following the same routine as the morning.
Spartacus now "reminds" his owner when it's time for medicine so that he can have his wet food. Teaching a deaf cat to honor a curfew and come home at a certain time took persistence and invention, but made for a happy and healthy cat.