Friday, September 30, 2016

Tricks for Treats

Tricks for Treats?
Cats have a reputation for doing exactly what they want and not being beholden to anyone else. This is usually where the blog post goes "but it's not true! You can get your cats to do tricks." No. No, cats have that reputation because that's exactly what cats are like. I'm not going to tell you that your cat is going to lie down and roll over for you every time you tell them to because they won't. They are horrible crowd pleasers. They are, however, excellent barterers. You throw in a little somethin' somethin' to sweeten the deal and they'll happily go out of their way to jump on a box for you. So... here is how to barter with your cat: Tricks for Treats.

The Goods: 
Not endorsing Friskies or anything, it's just Ticky's preference.

The first step in training your cat is making them realize that there's food involved. You may have to search around for a treat that really gets your cat excited about life, but my cat isn't very picky. If it comes in a plastic pouch and rattles when you shake it he'll come running. 

Most treats are pretty high in calories, so if you have big treats try breaking them up into pea-sized pieces to make the treats last longer when you're doing a training session. Try not to gorge your pet on treats. Keep it to 5-10 full-sized treats at a time. That's about as long as you want training to go on anyway. Shorter times are better for interest and memory. 

The Deal:

Pick one trick at first to build on. You want it to be easy so your pet grasps the concept of doing an  action to get a treat. Ticky's first trick was "Up." I'd hold a treat just out of his reach and say "up!" and he'd have to reach up with one paw to get it. As soon as his paw touched my hand I'd release the treat and say "Good boy!" At first he was kind of sloppy, just batting at my hand, or missing it by an inch or two. If he made an effort at it I'd still give him the treat. After he got the idea of reaching upward toward the treat I started touching my hand to his paw while it was in the air, then giving him the treat and the "good boy!" By showing him that touching my hand was the answer, I was able to then hold my hand still in the air and say "up!" and he would solidly touch it by himself after awhile.

The blurriest action shot ever of "up."
It's hard holding a camera and a treat at the same time!

The Tricks: 

I've found it easiest to have both a verbal command and a hand signal for each trick. Ticky seems to respond more to the visual hand signal, but also having verbal commands can only doubly reinforce the trick, so I use those too. Doing the "omg, we're doing tricks for treats, isn't it exciting?!" voice also makes him more enthusiastic, so that's a plus.

Some tricks I've taught Ticky: 

Sit: I started this one by holding a treat back over his head where he had to either back up or sit down to see it and said "sit". When he backed up I didn't do anything. When he sat down I released the treat. Eventually I did a hand signal of a fist over his head, then just a fist held at his eye level and he'd sit down for the treat. 

Turn: This could also go under the "first trick" category, because it's initially just the cat following the treat around which they'll do anyway. Guide the cat into a turn by luring them with a treat. Eventually just make the motion of a circle over their heads with the treat. Be sure to say "turn!" It's usually easier going the first way you teach it than the other way. Try both!

Give me Five: J.D. actually taught Ticky this one. After doing "sit" I open my hand right at his chest level and say "five" and he touches my hand with his paw. To train this one we basically annoyed him enough by shoving an open hand toward his chest that he'd lift his paw up to push it away and he'd get a treat for lifting his paw. Then, similar to "up" we started tapping his paw with our hand once it was raised. Now I only have to open my hand and he touches it for a treat. Seems like everyone wins. High five.

Jump: I picked surfaces that were too tall for Ticky to reach up onto without jumping onto it for starting this one. I'd make a show of arcing the treat from Ticky's level up to the couch or somewhere and say "jump!" When he jumped up to it he'd automatically get the treat because it was sitting there. Now I can make the arc movement and say "jump" and he jumps onto the surface I'm hovering my hand over. He never asks me how high though... Typical cat.

Touch: This one uses the cat's natural curiosity about new stuff that you hold out to them to smell. I started with a pencil or paintbrush that he hadn't seen before and said "touch!" When he sniffed the end of it I'd do the "good boy"/drop a treat for him. Eventually I moved the tip of the cool-looking stick to one side of me and said "touch!" and he'd seek it out to sniff it. Now he touches whatever I'm holding (or my fingertip) with his nose for "touch." This is apparently a great one for if you want your cat to be in a movie because you can be across the room from them, at the top of steps, etc, hold out a stick and say "touch" and they'll run over to it. Ticky will not proooobably not be in any movies, but it's cool nonetheless.

Go In: This one evolved from a need to get Ticky into a carrier without fuss when it's time to go to the vet. I'd show him that I had a treat, then snap and point into the carrier, saying "go on in!", then toss a treat into the carrier. He'd follow it in and get the treat. Eventually I could snap and point and he'd go in by himself, then turn around to get the treat I put in for him.

Over/Under: This one is really just a modification of both "jump" and "go in." I stick my leg out (because I'm too lazy to make him a hurdle) and do the "jump" hand motion over it and he jumps over. I do the snap and point for "go in" toward the space underneath of my leg and he goes under. It took a few tries to get the hang of it. It helped if I just threw the treat underneath of my leg at first for under. You can see in the following video that he's still trying to follow the treat instead of completing the trick sometimes. We're working on it!

Here's a video of Ticky doing some of his Tricks for Treats! You can see he's enjoying this bartering. Hehe.

It's pretty amazing to watch your cat figure out a new trick. They have little mental breakthroughs and suddenly realize what you're trying to tell them you want and it's awesome. I can only imagine it's the same feeling Ticky got when he realized he could get me to move off the couch by scratching the carpet. *sigh*

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Succulents: A lifelong obsession

When I was eight years old I begged my parents for a cactus. I think I had been flipping through some of my mom's gardening books and ran across the succulents section and found things like this:

Lithops, or as I like to call it the tiny butts plant.
Weird fuzzy cacti, similar to one my sister once grabbed as a toddler.
It was not so fuzzy below the surface. More spiny. :(

I thought to myself "this is the weirdest type of plant I've ever seen in my life, I have to have one." My parents said it was the easiest birthday purchase they'd ever made. They bought a $5 miniature cactus set from Walmart and I was beside myself with happiness. Not just one cactus, but FOUR to raise all on my own.

There were actually two cacti and two aloe in the pack. They were the following types:

Ruby Ball Cactus which I named Eenie
 (Actually it turns out that this one is two cacti grafted together!)

Aloe Juvenna, which I named Meanie
Haworthia, which I named Miney

Pilosocereus Azureus, which I named Moe
Eenie and Meanie made it a few years. Eenie's red cap eventually rotted from overwatering. Our cat knocked Meanie off of the desk a few too many times. However, Miney and Moe are still alive and kicking, making them the oldest cacti I own. They are both approaching the two decade mark!

The succulents initially came in teeny tiny pots with labels that said "these will grow to 3 inches tall." I guess they only meant if you kept them in that exact pot, because Moe is now a good foot and a half tall...

Moe doesn't know the meaning of chill.
Eventually Moe will fall over or break, but with a bit of luck I'll be able to save the top half for re-planting. Hopefully that doesn't happen for another several years though. I don't want to go through the trauma of trying to save a 20+ year old cactus until I have to. :-/ 
Miney gave me a good scare a few years ago when I moved into my current apartment. I put it in a sunny window and left it, as I had always done in my parents' house. However, it turned brown in a few months! I was sure I'd lost a succulent, but I moved it to the kitchen table in less bright sunlight and kept close tabs on the soil moisture. Now a few years later Miney is doing very well! It lost a good bit of growth, and used to be much bigger than it is currently, but now I technically have two Mineys- there was a "pup" or side growth off of it that is in the same pot but has developed as a separate plant.

Miney today

It turns out that taking care of succulents mostly involves NOT giving them much in the way of food or water. A "neglected" cactus is a happy cactus. You do have to check on them to make sure that they're not sitting in moist soil for more than a day or two and that the leaves look green and full, but other than that I've gone a month at a time without watering my indoor succulents. I actually lose more to overwatering than underwatering. They tend to mold or turn to brown mush if watered too frequently.

I now name very few of my plants in case of sudden plant death, but I do have some more succulents that I've grown fairly fond of. One is another aloe, though I'm not sure of the type. It was a gift from my grandad to my mom in a pot with several other succulents, most of which are still at my parents' house. I liked this particular one so my mom said I could have it. It's been with me for about 10 years now. I recently got a pup off of it, which has been developing nicely.

Pup from the aloe which has grown a new leaf bud in the past three months. It liiives!

Aloes are slow growers, especially in pots. None of my aloes are very big except for....

Ursula 1 and Ursula 2, the Aloe Vera
A gift from a friend before they moved, Ursula the Aloe Vera plant has survived dividing twice now. The smallest Ursula is currently putting out a new leaf to make up for the ones that have faded in trying to grow proper roots. In the picture you can see a tiny leaf bud growing in the center of the plant. It also liiiives!

I wonder how big this one will get?

Some succulents do very well at growing fast. My portulaca plants have not only taken over their pots but have produced tons of offspring that I'm putting into different pots. The Rose Portulaca has been doing amazingly well this year in the heat and will probably be a repeat purchase next year. I'll try bringing one of the Rose Portulacas inside for the winter, but chances are it won't do very well considering it's been outside its whole life and is an annual plant.

 Rose Portulaca, happily taking over the world.

There are lots of other succulent plants that I would like to try growing. I particularly like the look of things like string-of-pearls and various types of sedum. Maybe someday I will have an entire rock garden for my succulent plants. Wish me luck!