How to Train Your Cat to Seek Shelter During Missile Attack

The secret, courtesy of feline behavior experts Nicholas Dodman and Jackson Galaxy: Make it all about the cat's self-interest.

Tomer Appelbaum

War is hell and not just for us humans. Our animals suffer too and the least we can do is protect them to the best of our ability.

In Israel, when a rocket siren sounds, you have between 15 to 90 seconds to get into the "safe room," depending how far you are from the launch site. (Bigger countries also prone to missile attacks will probably have longer warning times.) It's trivial enough to keep the dog safe, if you don't panic. A normal dog will follow your lead, if you provide one. But what about the cat? He won't follow your lead unless it's to a bowl of chicken.

Yet the cat can be trained to head for the safe room when a siren sounds, say world-renowned experts, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, veterinarian and animal behaviorist and Jackson Galaxy, musician by night and cat behaviorist by day.

No, you don't read Felix extracts from "War and Peace" and hope he gets it. You condition him to associate the siren with a treat in the safe room.

In other words, when the siren wails, you know a missile is coming, but you want the cat to think it's time for a chicken leg.

"It's all about the cat's self-interest," spells out Galaxy, who shares his insights on shows such as "My Cat from Hell", aired on Animal Planet, and "Cat Mojo".

You need to train kitty between wars, of course - to "lock in" the behavior and make it part of the cat's natural routine. That's why you want to read this and start now.

Ooh, the siren means salmon croquette

First you have what Galaxy calls "homework": Turn the safe room into a cat heaven – a place the cat likes to hang out. "The safe room would be equipped with the most delicious food for training – tuna or canned salmon," Galaxy suggests. To the cat, "The noise means we go here and eat."

Second, have a recording of the siren ready to play. Helpfully, you can find recordings of the Israeli rocket-alert siren on Youtube.

Thirdly, for this to work, especially when there are missile attacks in your absence, the safe room should always be accessible to the cat – meaning, leave the door open. (You could build a cat flap into the door, but then you will have yet another opening to seal in the event of chemical attack.)

You know that if you open a can of food, your cat will (probably) come running from the next room. The cat associates the sound of a can opening with tasty food, Galaxy explains. The process of training the cat to scurry into the bomb shelter when the siren wails involves creating a similar association.

The process starts with simple clicker training, fine-tuned for this unique situation by Dodman, who explains the technique.

Clicker training for cats, but not the neighbors

It's worth watching a video on clicker training for cats – for instance the video linked here (and shown right below), "Cat clicker training in action" by animal trainers Catherine Crawmer and Karen Pryor. They make it look simple. First we arm ourselves with patience.

1. Now we train the cat to associate the sound of the clicker with a treat (this process is called “charging” or "priming" the clicker). Get the cat's attention, click and immediately administer a small treat that he adores. Repeat.

Cats are smart. It won't take long before he associates the click with a treat. Clickers are available at many pet stores, including in Israel, or you can make your own (for instance using a Snapple bottlecap).

The logic: "The click means that a reward is coming," explains Dodman. "The click is secondary reinforcement. With humans secondary reinforcement is money. A 200 shekel note on its own isn't worth the paper it's written on. The only reason valuable because can trade it for something else."

2. Once the cat associates the click with a reward, it's time for "the capture method." The behavior you want to capture is entering the safe room.

Start by luring the cat into the safe room, not with food but, for instance, with a "magic wand" (fake fishing pole), or if you intend to live forever, wait for the cat to go in. When it enters, which is the result you want, you click and give the treat.

In the rest of stage 2, you click and treat only when the cat is in the safe room.

3. Now we want to add the siren as a cue to run into the room for a click and treat.

"The siren, in a way, opens the door to that reward," explains Dodman.

Play the recording of the siren at considerately low volume. Then lead the cat into the safe room with a wand, and give it its fix – the click and treat.

Why low volume? It should be loud enough for the cat to hear but not the neighbors. Anybody who's lived through missile wars is likely to have a very different Pavlovian response to the sound, and it isn't lively anticipation of a salmon croquette.

Repeat until you feel the cat gets it: Siren, go to safe room leading the cat with a wand, and there, click and treat it.

"The siren is a signal that the window of opportunity to enter the safe room and get a treat is now open," explains Dodman. Speaking of windows of opportunity, if the cat doesn't come in time, you have to close the safe room and leave him outside.

If your home is near enough to the siren that you need to desensitize the cat to the sheer volume of sound - before gradually escalating the volume of the recording, Haaretz advises that you speak to the neighbors, and we do mean all of them. But in this writer's experience, if you stay calm when the real siren goes off, the cat will too, by and large.

Once the behavior has been captured – siren leading cat to seek treat in safe room – you can forgo the click entirely.

Now make the cat work harder

"Once the cat is trained, you don't need to reward it every time," Galaxy stresses. "Intermittent reinforcement will do."

Sound counterintuitive? Dodman explains. "People think erroneously that every time the cat does this, they have to click and reward. It is actually very powerful if you do not reward every time, because if the animal does the desired behavior and doesn't get a reward, next time he'll try harder," he says. "Varying the schedule of reward can create powerful incentive."

Will the cat retain this behavior over time? Probably. If he feels like it. He's a cat.

"The siren would eventually mean they run to the safe place without food being there. As long as the cat gets rewarded sometimes, it will work. The cat just needs to have the hope in his mind that it could be," Galaxy says.

Skeptical? Well, as we said, when you open a can of tuna in the kitchen, the cats come running. Right? And when you open a can of corn? Yes, there they come, tails hopefully on high.

It won't work every time

To keep this idyllic image of your newly-safe cat in proportion, cats were, are and will be unpredictable. You play the siren recording, you go to the safe room with freshly grilled foie gras in one hand and the clicker in the other hand, and the cat goes the other way.

It isn't about the cat being bloody-minded, clarifies Galaxy. "It depends on how hungry he is at the time of the siren, and how keen he is to go into the safe room," he spells out. "Most cats will do most things they're trained to, if the contingency is right. But if he just finished eating – he might go, No, I'll bag it this time."

Training is considered to be in place when the animal responds to a signal more than 85% of the time, Dodman explains. That is admittedly an arbitrary definition, but it's the accepted one: what they're doing is not by chance.

Which brings us to the last point.

When the missile siren shrieks, one's metabolism spikes. Some panic. Each has their own set of missions – for instance herding the kids and dog to the safe room, wiping sweat out of one's eyes, and what not. Animals are very alert to our body language, says Dodman, and if you're hysterical, the pets will notice. Staying calm is good for everybody concerned, not least yourself. And it's a must if you want to get the cat into the safe room. If you're flapping about screaming, Fluffy won't come even if you have fresh wild salmon dangling from that toy fishing rod.