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Cat Pawsitive Pro Helps Bridge the Gap Between Fear and Trust at Colorado Animal Rescue

By Yasaar Nakchbendi of Chirpy Cats  

Staff and volunteers at Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) have seen the Cat Pawsitive Pro (CPP) semester come to a close on a positive note.

Boasting successful cat adoptions and staff in high spirits, they’ve seen firsthand shy, aggressive cats become friendly, soliciting pets or showing off their high-fives. They’ve followed the cats’ stories from the beginning of training right into their adoptive homes. And the experience was one of personal enrichment, enlightenment and learning that was equally enriching for staff and volunteers as it was for the cats they have trained!

Jacky with Eloise

Colleen Hickman, feline specialist and CPP team leader, notes that some of the greatest improvements for their CPP cats was seeing “aggressive behaviors being replaced with social, engaged, and friendly behaviors.” She attributes these improvements to CPP training and believes this was the catalyst for their CPP cats getting adopted so quickly into their loving homes.

Keira Clark, programs manager and CPP team leader, echoes this sentiment. “Seeing the shy cats come out of their shell, purely because of training, was the greatest success in my eyes. Jazz and Eloise made leaps and bounds during the program. I wholeheartedly believe that they were adopted thanks to the confidence they built because of their participation in this program.”

Executive Director Wes Boyd reflects on how Cat Pawsitive Pro helped re-ignite the team’s passion for cat enrichment. “CPP was the perfect way to come together as a team after a year of Covid restrictions. The sense of collaboration and all the tiny celebrations throughout the program united our staff and volunteers, rekindling our excitement for cat enrichment and increased adoption success.”

Hanging out in the way back of the carrier: Brittany!

When asked about cats that made significant improvements in the program, standout cats Jazz, Eloise, and Brittany clearly left their paw prints on the hearts of staff members and volunteers.

Jazz was the first cat recruited into the program, and for many staff members he made the biggest improvement as his confidence soared. He was extremely shy and scared of people when rescued, but Keira described him as “very curious and smart” once training had started.

Volunteer and team member Kathy Webb thinks “Jazz learned the most, and did it quickly,” reflecting on his cute face when he concentrated very hard to do his high fives. She mentions another cat, Eloise, that also made significant progress. “She went from being in the back of her cubby with flattened ears and growling, to becoming somewhat sociable because she liked to show off her high-five!”

Jazz’s “learning face”

They rescued beautiful tortie Eloise from the same hoarding situation as Jazz, and she has a similar success story. She was one of the original CPP cats and stayed at the shelter for the longest time. “Fearful, unsocialized, anxious and shut-down.” That is how Jacky Kaczmarek, volunteer and team member, describes Eloise.

“Eloise was understandably hesitant and cautious in establishing trust. It was important that she be allowed patience and space to progress at her own pace. She taught me the importance of setting aside any expectations and working with whatever behavior she was willing to offer. Over time, Eloise became progressively more engaging and happy to take part in her training sessions. It was rewarding when I could finally pet her without fear of distressing her. I believe being a part of the program helped Eloise bridge the gap between fear and trust, and lead her to her new home,” she reports.

Jazz the high-five master

There is a consensus among staff and volunteers that the cats’ improvements were dramatic from start to finish. “The cats’ adoptability increased fairly quickly. I believe most would still be waiting for homes if they had not been recruited into Cat Pawsitive Pro,” says Robb Angier, volunteer and team member.

So, while Jazz became the high-five aficionado, and Eloise mastered ‘touch,’ let’s not forget about Brittany, the “Princess of Hisses,” soon turned “Princess of Purrs.” According to Colleen, “She would not hesitate to hiss and swipe at you when training first started and would even bite at her target stick. However, that didn’t last long, and this little lady learned quickly what I asked of her and understood treats were the result. Her aggressive behavior soon wore out as training progressed, and we started seeing her playful side and hearing all of her purrs.”

And what was Brittany’s genius? She was giving high-fives and learning to ring a bell when she found her wonderful forever family.

Bell-ringing Brittany

While cats were learning many tricks such as nose boop, high-fives, jumping through hoops and ringing bells, their trainers simultaneously gained personal enrichment and skills that will continue to add value in so many ways.

CPP helped some of their high-energy cats, too! Litten was easily distracted, but she mastered “place” very quickly. Colleen recalls how she witnessed in amazement this smarty pants kitty “skipped steps and went from just touching her paw to her place (a white washcloth) to immediately sitting and waiting for her treat.”

Litten demands some treats!

It’s not just the cats giving CPP a huge high-five, but the staff and volunteers, too! The program has instilled an energy and enthusiasm for clicker training that will certainly advance the shelter’s other cat enrichment programs.

“Taking part in this program will allow us to integrate cat training into our already established Cat Enrichment volunteer opportunity, and we are very excited to keep this going! We are also very excited to act as a resource for other shelters and rescues in our area and beyond who are interested in adding clicker training to their Cat TLC programs,” reports Keira.

Staff and volunteers alike felt an immense sense of accomplishment on a personal level too. Jacky shared how rewarding it was to work closely with the team toward a common goal, enriching the lives of cats and sending them off to their forever homes. Especially during the pandemic.

Jazz heads home

She says, “I’ve learned how to observe behaviors, understand cues, set aside expectations, proceed with caution, and that cats are eager to engage in meaningful ways.”

Jacky also fondly recalls an “ah-ha” moment with Jazz when he flopped over to invite a kind hand to pet him. “I felt accomplished and fulfilled that I had played a role in tapping into his ‘catness,’ she reflects.

“You can see a difference in the cat’s eyes as they process the causal links between their own behavior and the reward,” notes volunteer and team member Solomon Smilack.

Colleen says she feels honored to have taken part in the program and adds, “I feel even more equipped to help improve on cat behavior and wellbeing at the shelter, as well as provide useful behavior counseling to help keep cats in their homes. Not only did I get to be part of the reason a cat’s behavior improved or why a cat got adopted, but it also validated my work in cat enrichment and behavior so far, and progressed my skill level and confidence.”

Carrie Seay, Cat Pawsitive Pro Trainer-Mentor, reflects on the team’s successes and challenges. “The team at CARE was such a pleasure to work with this semester! Their cats were adopted so quickly and that was truly amazing to see! They worked with many distinct personalities of cats from the shy ones from hoarding situations to the more outgoing cats. Jazz was certainly the star of the show often as he was mastering behaviors left and right, from high-fives to ringing bells and really just providing a lot of fun and positive energy for the team.”

Lovely Litten

Adopters report the cats are making excellent progress in their new homes. Both Jazz and Eloise like watching TV with their families and Jazz loves catnip, something he never showed an interest in at the shelter! Eloise is continuing her high-five skills and Brittany is venturing out at night to play with her toys.

Want to keep up with news about the lifesaving work of The Jackson Galaxy Project’s Cat Pawsitive Pro initiative? Follow us on Facebook at The Jackson Galaxy Project. You can learn more about Cat Pawsitive Pro and support our work at www.catpawsitive.org. The Jackson Galaxy Project is a Signature Program of Greater Good Charities.