Hollis cat trainer will give classes in Merrimack pet shop

HOLLIS – Independent, indifferent, finicky, fastidious, affectionate, selfish. Those words have all been used to describe cats at some time or other.

But not the word trainable.

Rhonda Voss hopes to change that. Her business is called Always Positive Pet Training and the name reflects her belief that cats are indeed trainable and training should always be a positive experience for animals and humans.

To spread that message, Voss is offering a series of free classes at Pets Choice in Merrimack on “clicker training,” a method of using sound and treats to get cats to do cute tricks or stop undesirable behavior.

At the Hollis home she shares with her husband, Bill, and their four cats and a dog, Voss sits on the carpeted floor of a room off the kitchen and demonstrates the techniques.

“My house is dedicated to the pets,” she says, and that’s clear from one look at the room full of scratching post/climbing structures, pet beds and toys, all “environmentally enriching.”

The room gives the cats a fun place to climb and sleep and lots of horizontal perches, important in a multi–cat home so they feel they have their own territories, she said.

Isaac is a 6–year–old black and white shorthair and he licks Voss’s nose on the cue of “Isaac, am I dirty?”

Isaac will also give Voss a high–five, come when called, and spin and twirl on cue and will sometimes put his cheek against Voss’s.

There’s no secret to it – just simple behavioral modification methods and a little patience.

“Some skills happen quickly,” and other take a while, she says.

Here, more or less, is how it works: For the high–five trick, Voss puts a sticky note on her hand and lures the cat with a tiny piece of fish or meat and when the cat touches the note Voss clicks the clicker and the cat is immediately rewarded with food.

Gradually the sticky note gets smaller and smaller until it disappears and the cat realizes he is still being treated when he puts his paw on Voss’s hand.

The clicker is important, she said, because it marks the precise moment when the cat has performed the behavior that will be rewarded. The eventual aim is to get rid of the food and have the cat respond to the click alone.

After awhile, no clicker is needed and the animal simply “offers the behavior to get you to feed him,” Voss said, although “you do have to ‘pay’ them now and then” to re–enforce the behavior.

“It’s fast and it’s fun, and it teaches the animal to work with you and trust you,” she says, and it’s based on the idea that “any behavior that gets rewarded will get repeated.”

Correction–based methods, on the other hand, can lead to fear and aggressive behaviors. With clicker training, pets are “learning to learn,” she said, because they figure out how they got their last treat and repeat the behavior to get their next treat.

Voss, who works with both cats and dogs at animal shelters, says clicker training is a powerful tool for helping fearful animals gain confidence.

“They realize ‘I can make that human give me food’ by just doing this small thing, which is huge.”

Which gets us to the serious side of cat training.

Homeless cats, and dogs, that are well trained and don’t exhibit serious behavior problems are far more likely to be adopted and far less likely to be killed.

Other problem behaviors that can be countered by clicker training include counter top lounging, and night–time wake–ups. It can be used to teach tolerance for grooming, medications and cat carriers, or to introduce a cat into a home where there is already a cat or dog.

So many cats come to shelters because they are problems for their owners – they don’t use their litter boxes or they scratch furniture, said Voss.

As gentle and quiet as the four cats who pad around their cat room, Voss says her love of animals drew her to animal shelters where she began volunteering, She is now on the board of directors of the Humane Society of Greater Nashua and is a volunteer trainer at the Animal Rescue League in Bedford.

At the Nashua shelter, she’s helping create small group dog training classes at the Humane Society for Greater Nashua, With only four or five dogs they get a lot of personal attention, she said, and classes are starting soon.

Voss learned her skills at the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior in Massachusetts and is also a full member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and is certified in dog and cat first aid by the American Red Cross.

She offers free in–home evaluations of a cat or a dog to allow her to develop a customized training plan. Some behavior problems may arise out of a medical problem and she cautions owners to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian first.

Other classes at Pets Choice include Clicker Training, at 5:30 p.m. on April 8, and another called Pet, Sniff, Lick, Climb and Click is at 11 a.m. on April 9.

For new owners of little felines, she is giving a May 14 class called “So You’re Smitten with a Kitten, Now What?”

Pre–registration is required. Call Pets Choice at 424–7297 to register.

All the talks are free, but a donation to a local animal shelter is suggested, and a collection box will be provided. Talks last about one hour, and participants are asked to leave their cats at home.