Humans seem to have less success training their house cats then the kitties have at training the humans.
But George Ney, a Wauconda, Ill.-based animal trainer, showed a Columbia crowd of more than 400 that with patience, affection, good humor -- and the judicious application of food -- cats can indeed jump through hoops.
Ney, also an author and custom furniture maker, brought three of his 11 cats to the Florence Bain Senior Center to entertain during Saturday's statewide meeting of Pets On Wheels. The Pets on Wheels organization brings house pets to shut-ins in nursing homes and other places.
Ney told the crowd that he found males easier to train than females, which prompted a member of the audience to reply, "Unless they're husbands!"
"Cats tend to do what they want to do," Ney said, "but they can be manipulated to do what you want. It generally takes about two weeks, but I've done it in a matter of minutes. I generallystart training the cats when they're about 8 weeks old, but I've started when some were as young as 2."
However, he recalled, "there was one person who wrote to me and said that he'd trained a 13-year-old cat."
The secrets to successful cat training are patience, praise, good humor, reward a trick with food and work with the feline's attention span, generally between 10 to 15 minutes, once an hour.
But, he admitted, "Not all cats will do all tricks; sometimes it's easier to get them to jump through a hoop if you just put some food on the other side."
As if to underscore this point, the cats, 5-year old Scupa (Self-Contained Uninhibited Purring Apparatus), the 1-year-old Lotto, and Tasha, largely retired at age 11, also proved that cats are . . . cats.
They sat in a row, lay on their backs, submitted to rides in strollers and played dead. One even tolerated Ney's pounding on the table to demonstrate his calm nature, as he lay on his back.
But, during the show, one cat or another popped up to probe the edges of the table, nuzzle the trace of cat food on Ney's hand, take over a trick that another cat refused to perform or tend to personal hygiene.
They invariably did this just when Ney wanted them to perform. "You're making me look bad," Ney joked.
The cats twitched their tails at the performance of their human. But ultimately, they didwhat he wanted them to do.
A lifelong cat enthusiast, Ney, 65, has been training his charges for movies, television, commercials and nightclub appearances since 1982. He takes the animals around to schools, libraries, hospitals and senior centers.
Training cats to perform, more or less on cue, was a sideline that grew out of his main business, building customized cat furniture for his company, Cathouse Originals.
Ney uses unfinished tree limbs to create almost abstractfurniture, fit for cats to climb around in -- or sharpen their clawson.
This, in turn, was a business that grew out of his original career -- adapting large electric wire spools into recreation room furniture, as well as selling carpets.
"People would say, 'Oh look, that would be great for the cat!' " Ney remembered.
He is also the author of two books, "Cat Condos and Other Feline Furniture," and "The Educated Cat: How to Teach Your Cat to do Tricks," published by Dutton.
Ney finds his "pure-alley" cats at his local Humane Society to be just as smart, or more so, than any purebred. Their performing careers tend to last six to seven years. Then Ney retires them to a life of leisure, except for the occasional personal appearance.