Happy Cats Haven trains felines, and their forever families 

Clicking with a cat

So you're a cat — an older cat, in a shelter, with health problems. You're not nearly as adorable as the kittens pouncing annoyingly around you. And they're getting adopted. You're not.

This was the situation for Roxy, who ended up at Happy Cats Haven a few years ago.

"When we very first started, we had a 12-year-old," says Sara Ferguson, key founder of the no-kill cat rescue and adoption center. "She was hyperthyroid, so she had some issues, you know, and it was like, 'How do we get her adopted?'

"Well, we taught her to do a high-five — and she got adopted."

It's a tactic the staff and volunteers at the shelter use regularly now with "the ones that need a little bit more help," Ferguson says.

And if you thought a cat couldn't really be trained to do much of anything, think again.

Clicker training is a technique brought into the companion animal world from the marine mammal world, Ferguson says. It's a style of training that uses sound (made by a mechanical clicker or your mouth) and a reward to teach the behavior you want the animal to learn — or as Ferguson says, "noise followed by the yummy stuff."

At Happy Cats, trainers first teach a cat its name, then to touch its nose to the end of a stick. From there, skills range from "sit" to "go to mat" to "pretty," a trick that first involves a sit, and then lifting the front paws and the upper half of the body so the cat looks like a standing person.

This type of training has become pretty mainstream with dogs. But as Ferguson says, "If it eats, you can train it." And clicker training gets a cat's attention in an amazing way, she explains.

"It develops a whole new language with which to reach them, and it also makes you predictable. Our cats who have come into the shelter have had a lot of unpredictability in their lives, and they are ready for somebody to come in during the week and have the treat and the clicker and make it work. It's enriching for them while they're here. ... They love it, they just love it. All they have to do are these stupid things and they get treats and they think they have us trained."

Clicker training can be used in particular, she adds, to increase a cat's confidence.

"We've seen a lot of kitties come in really shy and really not wanting to show themselves. We start that clicker training and then they're at the door going, 'Oh, I can meet people.' Cats aren't very good at selling themselves usually, not like dogs are. This gives us a way to suggest to them that it might be worth their while to come out and meet their next family."

The shelter's techniques appear to be working: Happy Cats is on track to have sheltered about 400 cats this year in their facility off 21st Street, almost double from when it opened three years ago, says Alison DuVal, shelter manager.

"This year, January 5th was our first kitten call, that kittens had already been born," DuVal says. "Cats have become so prolific, and it's pretty much a year-round thing. I just got a call now from a lady that's got seven 8-week-old kittens under her porch. So, I was hoping for a little break, but that's not gonna happen."

She laughs. "It's fine — that's what we're here for."

Happy Cats was started by seven friends, including both Ferguson and DuVal, who met at another shelter and became advocates for the cats there.

"We really developed some innovative programs and then we thought we could do it on our own ... and keep those innovative programs going," Ferguson says.

The biggest thing they wanted to focus on was colony housing. Unlike many shelters, where animals waiting to be adopted live individually in kennels, at Happy Cats the felines reside in groups in one of four well-lit rooms built out with ramps and shelves for them to climb. Potential adopters can enter one of the rooms and engage with a handful of cats all at the same time.

"It's a really wonderful way to give the cats a somewhat normal experience while they're waiting to be adopted ... and it's also good for our adopters," Ferguson says. "We're all about giving our adopters all the time they need to make the decision to adopt one of our cats. A cat is a big commitment, 15 to 20 years on average, so we really want to make sure that the match is a good one."

Happy Cats also offers ongoing training. Aside from clicker workshops, classes range from Kitty Kindergarten ("how to make sure their kitten turns into a cat they want to keep for 15, 20 years") to Eat Play Love (including topics such as how to enrich your cat's life via play, how to build a "catio," and how to train them to go for walks with a harness and leash).

"A lot of people think that cats are disposable, and if you have an issue, you don't deal with the issue because you can't train a cat, right? So you throw the cat away," Ferguson says. "But we think that if you can train a cat, you can save a cat."


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