Offered to kittens between 7 and 13 weeks old by the first session, Kitten Kindergarten recently opened kitty doors in three, one-hour sessions. Classes were celebrated as a “huge success” by its two-legged and four-legged participants. And, according SDHS’s Kitten Kindergarten’s designer/trainer Allison Beaulieu, CPDT – KA, and community training coordinator, Shauna Romero, CPDT – KA, classes were “so much fun!”
Kittens – and their owners – learned the nuances of kittenhood during a “critical development period when open and receptive to learning.” Exposed to everything new – environments, people, fellow felines, toys, and sounds, kittens practiced the etiquette of socializing – a.k.a kitten recess – carrier desensitization, comfort with DVM visits, leash and harness training, grooming care and tricks.
“Owners are often surprised at how trainable kittens can be,” said Beaulieu. “We often see the hand to the forehead moment, ‘Of course they can do this!’ A kitten’s socialization window – that open spongy period – is short. Once that window shuts, issues can come up.”
The San Diego Humane Society (SDHS) utilizes only positive methods and tools, sidestepping aversive training for all animal instruction. Clicker training and food – both kitten and baby – along with tuna and cream cheese is used to reward and entice kittens to become affable cats. According to Romero, adult cats can be finicky when introduced to a new environment, making learning difficult. Kittens adapt better.
"Kittens adapt to changes and learn new environments with less stress and fear than adult cats,” she said. “Kitten Kindergarten reviewed basic handling, manners and obedience.”
“Cats tend to freak out when removed from their environment,” added Beaulieu. “They lose focus. They investigate the perimeter. They often won’t eat in a new space. They’re more comfortable in a colony, a group setting of cats. Clicker training works especially well with shy cats. Even the most suspicious cats watch the action and slowly come out of hiding. The idea that cars are aloof, non-social creatures isn’t true. Cats are social.”
Kittens also learned that carriers aren’t scary. Carriers cause most cats to hide. The SDHS sent “students” a video prior to class that demonstrated how to invite cats to be comfortable in carriers. Often earmarked as a trip to the vet, carriers cause stress, “something we work to change” because of the importance of using them for natural disasters. Desensitized, crates become a wonderful place to go.
Romero described the training room as a novel environment for even the shy or timid cat who’s never stepped out of the house. Kittens were set up in their own x-pen or pod.
“Stepping away from its environment can be scary for a cat,” she said. “But all of our kittens – even those up for adoption – do really well. Kitten Kindergarten’s shy ones explored and played with new objects by the final session. We also taught owners how to exhaust energetic cats by refocusing their energy. Every owner appreciates a peaceful night’s sleep without a cat running around.”
Romero and Beaulieu both agree that cats are stigmatized for their independent nature. Often left alone, owners assume their “personality is their personality” with no understanding of how to “handle and socialize kittens and cats to experience new sights and sounds to shape a well-balanced cat.”
“Shaping behavior with tiny steps, we proactively work to prevent fear, anxiety or stress in kittens,” said Beaulieu. “Classes build from each other. Through the art of positive reinforcement and clicker training, owners realize that if willing, they can train their felines to do so much more. Kitten Kindergarten also introduced cat body language. Owners learned why cats behave and react to people and stimulus. We worked to increase the bond between cats and their humans.”
Training included sitting, high fives, follow the target, lie down on your mat, come, off high counters, grooming – including the brushing of teeth and the use of kitty litters, carrier comfort and no stress DVM visits.
“By pairing potentially scary things with treats, kittens associate scary isn’t so scary anymore,” continued Beaulieu. “A day at the veterinarian is a perfect example. Kittens learned to become comfortable being handled for weighing, restrained for vaccines, and checked – eyes ears, and nails.”
Cats were also introduced to leash and harness training to underscore that felines can be safely walked outdoors.
“Kittens are adorable, just adorable,” concluded Beaulieu. “Kitten Kindergarten was the highlight of my week. It was difficult not to get sucked into playing with kittens for the hour. Those who judge cats to be anything but great fun, haven’t met enough cats!”
Additional classes will be scheduled as per “public interests.” Classes are not suggested for feral kittens or kittens who growl, snap, bite, exhibit fear or severe behavioral problems. Kittens too shy or too old for class can send their humans as auditors at a discounted rate. Auditors can watch, learn, ask questions and practice at home.
Kitten Kindergarten is held at the SDHS San Diego Campus located on Gaines Street. Enrollment is limited to six kittens per class. Humans are required to prove at least one set of vaccines, a deworming, plus a negative result for an FELV prior to the first class.
Those kittens showing signs of diarrhea, sneezing, congestion, and missing hair will not be allowed to participate. SDHS reserves the right to turn any kittens they deem unhealthy. Class participation is based on their own risk. Animals adopted from SDH will receive a 20 percent discount. Classes will be held indoors at the Gaines Street campus.