Steve Dale is one of the country's leading pet journalists. He is host of the Pet Central program on WGN Radio, owned by the Chicago Tribune, the host of Animal Planet Radio, and a correspondent and columnist for Dog World and USA Weekend. His syndicated columns and programs appear in over 100 newspapers and on 80 radio stations. Steve probably reaches more homes, directly, than any other journalist in the pet field. In addition he is active in an enormous range of pet-related civic endeavors.
I got to know Steve some years ago when he asked me to do a clicker training demo on the Chicago TV Noon News. Next thing I knew, Steve had a cat, and thanks to Steve's understanding of operant conditioning that cat, a Devon Rex named Ricky, was a media star.
As he trained Ricky, Steve kept me and a lot of other pet owners posted. Steve wrote, "I taught Ricky to jump through a Hula hoop, and over dogs or children who could do a down/stay. I could take him anywhere, and he was at ease and interested and could do the things he'd learned to do: operate the treat machine on the vet clinic's counter; play the piano.
Ricky was even trained to scamper up on my shoulder and 'request' his heart medication. He did these 'tricks' and others on Animal Planet and National Geographic Explorer.
Steve Dale says, "When you clicker train an animal you become working partners, in a way. It's a different thing from just having a pet. With Ricky, I had the kind of relationship people have with an agility competition dog, or a Search and Rescue dog; we did these things together, we were equal partners. And this was a cat."
Ricky died at the tender age of four and a half, due feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the most frequent cause of 'instant death' in cats. In honor of their beloved pet, and to perhaps save other cats from this disease, Steve Dale and his wife Robin have established the Ricky Fund, under the auspices of the Winn Feline Foundation, a non-profit research organization. Donations to the Ricky fund are welcome and can be made at www.cfainc.org/catalog/winn-donations.html. Check out the Winn Foundation website at www.Winnfelinehealth.org.
Meanwhile, into Steve and his wife Robin's life came a second Devon Rex kitten, Ringo. I had the pleasure of meeting this kitten when I did an Animal Planet Radio show with Steve in Chicago last winter. What a character! But I'll let Steve tell it:
"On Ringo's first visit to the studio, my guest happened to be legendary trainer Karen Pryor, who managed to clicker train Ringo in ten minutes on live radio. It was like going to nursery school and learning the theory of relativity from Albert Einstein. Meanwhile the sound engineer was in a state of terror. Ringo pounced on the console, pushed a button that played a sound effect of a cat going 'meow,' managed to nearly disconnect a listener phone call, and made a cat toy of foam rubber pads that cover the microphone."
While Steve interviewed me, I target-trained Ringo. He learned to home in on a pencil and would follow it anywhere including straight up in the air, even after he was stuffed to the gills with the tuna I'd brought along just in case. See Steve, Karen, and Ringo in the Animal Planet studios.
Steve's first plan was to teach Ringo to play the drums, like his namesake. "We did purchase several electronic drum sets for Ringo," Steve wrote, "but they weren't very practical. It was impossible for Ringo to paw at the drum pad with any result. You'd think someone would manufacture a drum set for cats. Instead, we settled on a tambourine, which he learned to hit. He also learned to jump through a hoop, to sit, and to wave. However, he only waved at girls. I harness trained Ringo and began to socialize him to the real world, as I did with Ricky. Ringo enjoyed outings to places like the dry cleaners and the neighborhood stationary store. Shaine, the miniature schnauzer at the stationary store always stayed five feet away from Ringo. Every time our tiny kitten moved an inch forward, Shaine moved back an inch. It was Ringo's favorite lesson ever - cats can control canines."
This time it wasn't a rare, partially genetic disease that struck. It was a common cat virus, FIP, feline infectious peritonitis. This is an acute manifestation of a coronavirus that is widespread, common in shelters and catteries, and usually has no more risk than a human common cold. In fact most cats get it and hardly get sick at all; the owner may never know the cat had the virus. Only now and then, and especially in kittens, does it apparently mutate and become virulent and fatal. There is no obvious genetic component and no cure). For more information on feline infectious peritonitis go to www.orionfoundation.com.
So the Dales lost two remarkable cats in less than a year. But the Ricky Fund has now given grants to two research projects with more in the offing. And clicker training gained a lifelong enthusiastâ€¦especially for cats.