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Jackson Galaxy is a Great Parent

Posted on August 24th, 2012 by Jessica M. Lang | General
One couple had been rubbing butter on the cat’s back so he would spend a while licking it off . . .  Parents come up with some weird stuff when we’re exhausted and out of ideas.

My kids introduced me to a TV show – “My Cat from Hell” – about a guy with a weird beard and Rock&Roll tattoos who helps out people whose cats are ruining their lives. They call him because their cat attacks them constantly, bites and scratches, trashes the furniture, terrorizes other pets, harasses the neighbors, and makes them too afraid to bring a baby into the family.

In the first episode I watched, I was fascinated by a couple describing how they fought daily about their cat: the woman would give the cat treats, trying to induce better behavior. The guy relied on negative reinforcement, shouting and throwing sofa cushions at the cat when it stalked and attacked him. Neither strategy was working, but that didn’t stop both people from criticizing the other’s approach.

Sound familiar, parents?

Jackson Galaxy is described as a cat behaviorist. But he’s constantly solving relationship problems between the humans. And he’s not – in psych lingo terms – using a mainly behaviorist approach. Nearly every household he deals with has been trying some form of carrot & stick – classic behaviorist strategy. When parenting books urge you to use it for kids, it’s usually termed “consequences.” Or “reinforcement.” Anyway, Jackson mostly makes them stop. Both the rewards – usually food treats; and the punishments – often spraying with water, yelling ‘bad kitty’, or shooting with a soft projectile. One couple had been rubbing butter on the cat’s back so he would spend a while licking it off, and Jackson wasn’t sure whether that was intended as positive or negative reinforcement. They said mainly it “just buys us some time.” Parents come up with some weird stuff when we’re exhausted and out of ideas.

So what does he have them do instead? Usually, he watches the cat a lot, and then talks with them about the cat’s nature and needs. Seriously. The cat may need to hunt, to climb, to mark territory, to feel included in the family, to have a safe place to eat and a clean place to poop, to be picked up in a way that feels secure. When these natural instincts are frustrated, the cat misbehaves. A hunting cat with no normal outlet sees everything that breathes as potential prey.

Jackson teaches them to meet the cat’s needs in constructive ways. Play with the cat every day using a toy that is basically some feathers on the end of a fishing rod, to simulate hunting a bird. Put the litter box away from the eating area and clean it more often. Put up shelves she can climb. Get scratching posts.

They have to put effort in on a consistent basis, but it works. The cats get happier and stop drawing blood from the family members. And the couples stop fighting about it.

So when you read that consequences, whether positive or negative, are the only way to deal with your child’s misbehavior, consider an alternative. Try observing your child and thinking about her nature and instincts. Does he need more running around? Being held close? Challenging games or activites? Exploring and dismantling stuff to see what’s in it?

OK, it won’t be as easy as Jackson makes it look. It won’t solve all your problems in one 30 minute episode. But it’s a different way of thinking, and might give you some different ideas. It might help you have a less frustrating conversation with your spouse. And it might keep you from becoming a subject of a reality TV show called “I buttered my toddler.”