NEW PORT RICHEY
Fergie leapt to the front of her cage when her visitors arrived. As the cage door opened, the excited feline jumped down to enjoy the tuna feast on the fingers of trainer Cassie Matthies. Then she greeted SPCA executive director Gail Armstrong with a nudge, and Armstrong stroked the sleek black and white coat of the American short-haired kitty.
A warm welcome from a cat might seem unremarkable, but Fergie wasn't always this way.
"A couple brought her here because she wasn't friendly, and they were afraid she was going to bite," Armstrong said.
Fergie was extremely timid when she arrived at the shelter on Congress Street a couple of months ago. She would stay in the far corner of her cage and hide. When anyone would come near her, she would hiss and swat at them.
"She didn't want to interact with anybody," Armstrong said.
The trick to making her more sociable — and more likely to be adopted — was clicker training.
Clicker training is a reward-motivated technique used on animals to help them become comfortable around people. When Fergie responds to a command, Matthies sets off the mechanical clicker. Then Fergie is rewarded with her favorite snack, tuna.
"Fergie loves food," said Matthies, the shelter's behavioral specialist. Other animals are rewarded with other treats.
SPCA Suncoast always has used positive reinforcement with its animals, and the staff has been working with clicker training for a few months now.
The method is similar to the training used with killer whales at SeaWorld. When Shamu completes his trick, the trainer blows a whistle. That whistle signifies that Shamu will be rewarded with a fish.
Matthies uses another variation of the technique with Flower, a dog who is deaf. Instead of a clicker, she uses a laser pointer to reinforce good behavior and signal a treat.
"The concept of clicker training can be very powerful," Armstrong said. "But it isn't easy. You can't just hand someone a clicker and say go at it. It's a skill."
Both timing and reinforcement are very important keys to clicker training, and it takes patience to learn it.
"After I began the training, it took about a week to see a response," said Matthies, "and a few weeks to see actual results."
She has used the clicker training with Fergie for about a month and a half, and said the results in such a short time are remarkable.
"It's incredible when people think I'm showing them a different cat," Armstrong said. "They say, 'That can't be the same cat.' That's when you know it's worked wonders."
Fergie, who is about 2 years old, needs an adoptive home. Her future owner would be encouraged to continue clicker training, as it would make a much easier transition for the cat. As she becomes comfortable with people, she can be weaned off the clicker method.
"We'd like for her to move from the association that people are good things because they give me food, to people are just good things," Armstrong said. "Her turnaround in fortunes is an amazing story, and I'm looking forward to her being someone's forever pet."