Another YouTube video has made the rounds. This one fascinated many—you may even have had the opportunity to see it yourself. It featured two lovely cats sitting politely in front of two shiny bells. The cats ring the bells and receive a delivery of a tasty treat.
What animal is the smartest?
There is so much in this video to chew! Most notable is the opportunity to highlight cats. Some believe cats cannot be trained. This cute video is a great, subtle way to highlight cats doing stuff they have learned. As a behaviorist I am often asked (usually by the person sitting next to me on the plane for whom I mistakenly replied to the question about what I do for a living), “What animal is the smartest?” and “What animal is easiest to train?” I always answer the first by saying that each species is as smart as they need to be to be that species. In other words, smart is relative.
The fact is, when it comes to training, all animals learn. Motivation is all that is needed. Now when using just positive reinforcement, we need to have motivators that the animal wants (remember, positive means 'to give'), most often food, toys or social interaction. Years ago, when I was training pythons in a zoo setting to move on and off exhibit on cue, positive reinforcement using food allowed for a training session every couple of weeks… a slow process. We ended up moving to the use of temperature, slowly warming or cooling the area where the snake was to motivate a move to a more desirable temperature—a form of negative reinforcement (negative: to take away), as the temperature was removed when the snake moved. Most cats are super-motivated by food and social interaction, and can learn incredibly complex behaviors.
Ringing the adoption bell
Clearly the cats in the video are food-motivated. While the video makes it appear that the cats are training the person—obviously the cats learned “ring bell, get food”—what makes me chuckle the most is when the tiger cat switches bells mid-session. You can almost see the wheels turn as he watches his compadre ding that bell! His body shifts to allow his bell-ringing paw (he rings just with his right) to ring his pal’s bell. This behavior is an easy one to train, and one that you can do in your shelter. I can just picture a scene where bells are placed in front of cats when facilitating an adoption!
"The fact is, when it comes to training, all animals learn."
How to train a cat to ring a bell
- Follow the protocol for paw touch here. (Note, you can use a super yummy canned food and a tongue depressor for food delivery.)
- When the cat is reliably touching your hand, put an easily ringable soft-toned bell in your touch hand and cue the cat to touch. Reward any touch to the surface of the bell. Repeat until the behavior is stable (1-2 sessions of 4-8 touches each).
- Place the ringer of the bell so the paw is likely to touch the ringer. Reward for the slightest ring. Repeat, shaping stronger rings by waiting for a stronger touch before reward.
- Cat gets noticed—and adopted!
So, how about giving it a try at your shelter? Just think, picking the cats who have been at the shelter the longest may market them in a whole new way!
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
I’m Not Lookin’
Dr. Emily Weiss interprets behavior in a dog video gone viral—and encourages you to put your decoder ring on, too.
That’s Our Thing
Dr. Emily Weiss shares sage advice on how to interpret those unique behaviors in dogs.
Can We Predict Which Dogs Are a Danger to Cats?
Dr. Emily Weiss digs into a new study that could shift how you assess for predatory behavior in dogs.