Oliver: One feline’s field guide to training her human

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

If you ask me, my cat, Harriet, has me well trained. Ask her, and you might get a different answer. She’s only been working on me for 17 years.

Needless to say, I’ve been secretly trying to train her, too. Just don’t tell her that.

Harriet is a creature of habit, as are most cats. However, they are the ones who decide what their habits will be, independent little creatures that they are.

Don’t get me wrong; I love dogs, too. I grew up with four dogs in the house and a bunch of cats outside because we lived in the “country.” It’s just that these days my schedule is better suited to the independent nature of a resident feline than a loyal but needier canine that requires periodic walks and bathroom breaks outside.

My previous cat, Hooper, was much more of a lap cat, exhibiting a level of neediness that made me feel appreciated. Her death six years ago continues to make me sad.

Hooper was what you could call a “drama queen.” She would make a production out of everything, particularly feeding times or when I’d make the mistake of, oh, moving my leg when she was using it for a pillow. Mouthy to a fault, Hooper always let me know where I stood. She had the appearance of stubbornness, but usually she’d accede to my demands.

Harriet, on the other hand, appears all sweet and compliant, but underneath all that black-and-white fur lies one of the most stubborn cats I have ever encountered. You cannot make her do anything.

This is where the battle of wills begins, and where our attempts at training begin.

Harriet expects me to follow her around. She will not come when called. She will sit ever so primly in a doorway, trying to lure me to follow. Once I do, she’s on the move, glancing back every few steps to make sure I’m right behind her.

Then she heads to one of two places: the bedroom, where she expects me to pet her as she walks on the bed, often just out of reach, or the bathroom, where she expects me to pet her while she drinks from the faucet. Some days, she makes a circuit of it, alternating between the sites until she tires of her game.

Because of her age, we’ve had to modify the water-drinking game. When she was younger, she would leap from the toilet seat up to the sink on her own. Once her eyesight started getting iffy, she’d be a little hesitant to make the leap, every once in a while missing the mark.

Well-trained cat mother that I am, I helped her see that it would be easier to jump up onto the toilet tank and then step over to the sink. Once she figured out that it was her idea (wink, wink), she was back in business.

That’s the real key to “training” Miss Harriet. Somehow I have to make her think it’s her idea, or that there’s some wonderful reward at the end – whether it’s drinking from her beloved faucet or getting her dinner. I’m proud of the fact that somehow I’ve managed to make Harriet think that swallowing her pills each day is just part of her routine. She knows what time they’re coming, she expects them, and she takes them without incident. She even can be cajoled to follow me to the bedroom, where this little maneuver takes place. On a good day, she leads me there on her own.

Of course, the payoff is the walk back down the hallway to the kitchen, where her food bowl will be filled.

That’s the one thing that Harriet does better than Hooper ever did: taking those pills. As compliant as Hooper could be on so many things, she hated taking pills.

Maybe I just became a better trainer the second time around.

Or maybe Harriet just thinks she’s got me right where she wants me.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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