Learning lessons from a cat


George was smarter than he looked

A lot of what I know about learning, I learned from a cat.

When I moved into a new home, the kitchen door was badly scratched by the previous owner’s pets. I determined my animals were not going to claw the door.

I bought a set of fake sleigh bells at the dollar store and hung it beside door just about cat’s ear level. Evey time the door opened, the bell jingled softly. When the cat needed to go out, she’d move to the door, I’d give the bells a good shake and then open the door. Within a couple of weeks, the cat learned to ring the bell when she needed to go outside.

That cat died.

I adopted a replacement from the local animal shelter. George was an older cat, rather stupid looking, but he was up to date on shots and already altered. The positives outweighed the negatives.

For the best part of the month after George took up residence, it rained nearly every day. I didn’t attempt to teach George to ring the bell because I didn’t want him to associate the bell with getting soaked. (Also, I didn’t want to go out in a downpour with a cat to make sure he knew which house was his.)

When the rain stopped, I started letting George go out, but I was too busy to teach him to ring the bell.

One noon after George had started going outside by himself, I was having lunch at the kitchen counter. George was sitting nearby staring at the bell. After a little while, he walked over to the bell and gave it a hard smack with his left paw. I got up and opened the door. George’s eyes got big and his jaw dropped. Apparently that was the response he wanted, but he hadn’t been entirely sure the bell was what made someone open the door. George plodded out.

Next day George repeated the performance, starting from the same position on the kitchen floor.  I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The third day, George sat in a different place before he got up to ring the bell. Again, I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The following day, it was lunch time, but I was still working in my office when I heard the bell ring. I went to the kitchen, where George was waiting beside the door. I let him out.

In the second week, I heard the bell ring one morning while I was working in my office. When I got to the kitchen, George was sitting in the pantry in front of his empty food bowl. He looked at me, then he looked at his bowl and looked back at me. I filled the food bowl.

Some years later, I moved and couldn’t take George. He ended up in a new home in a different state. His new cat care provider  fastened George’s bell beside the back door. George rang his bell when he needed something until shortly before he died of old age.

What George taught me

  • Learning occurs fast when the a smart cat sees what’s being taught will let him accomplish something he wants to do.
  • Immediate success encourages repeat behavior.
  • Smart cats rule out alternative explanations for the results they experience. (The door opens only if I sit in a certain place before I ring. The cat care provider has to be in the kitchen.  I have to be wearing my lucky flea collar.)
  • Smart cats use what they’ve learned for purposes the teacher never anticipated.