Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Solving the Mystery of Cat Training – Agility and More!

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Sheila Webster Boneham, author of the Animals in Focus mystery series. Drop Dead on Recall, the first book in the series, won the 2013 Maxwell Award for Fiction from the Dog Writers Association of America and was an NBC Petside Best Ten Dog Book of 2012. Sheila is also the author of 17 nonfiction books, six of which have won major awards from the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. For the past two decades Boneham has been showing her Australian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers in various canine sports. She has bred top-winning Aussies and founded rescue groups for Aussies and Labs. Boneham holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University, an MFA Stonecoast/University of Southern Maine, and resides in Wilmington, N.C. Sheila writes literary nonfiction and poetry as well, and teaches writing. You can keep up with Sheila’s latest news at and, learn more about animal-oriented writing—with some of your favorite authors!—at her Writers & Other Animals blog at .

When I mention that Leo, the lead cat in my Animals in Focus mystery series, competes in feline agility in my new book, Catwalk, people respond in any of several predictable ways. Disbelief or astonishment are common. Laughter is not unheard of. A handful show some interest in learning more. And the vast majority respond with some variant of “My cat wouldn’t do that. S/he’s too independent/indifferent/self-serving.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that last response and I have a theory. I think that many people prefer to think of cats as lovely companions who really care only about themselves. In a society in which many people are distanced from nature except through media and pets, the idea of living with a minimally civilized animal holds some appeal as a final link to wilder nature.
That’s lovely, but in my experience, well-socialized, healthy cats do enjoy learning new things and interacting with people and other animals. I’ve had lots of cats, and every one of them cared about the people and other animals in their family. Our Kitty (seriously, I didn’t name her!) used to lie on my chest and gently pat my cheeks whenever I had a migraine, and Leo loved to cuddle and play with tiny baby puppies when we were breeding Australian Shepherds. And so it goes.

Leo, the protagcat in my Animals in Focus Mystery Series from Midnight Ink, is one of those well-socialized catboys, and he loves Janet MacPhail and her Aussie, Jay, among others. He showed his devotion with a heroic act in Drop Dead on Recall (2012), and he remained an essential character in The Money Bird (2013). In Catwalk—just out—he and his ilk are in the spotlight at cat shows and in the world of feral cats.
Most people know about canine agility by now, since it’s become popular enough over the past twenty years to be televised regularly. Dogs of all sizes, breeds, and mixtures compete successfully. Check out these videos:

·         Yes, that’s a Chihuahua!

·         All kinds of dogs, and people, too!

Well, cats also compete in agility! In the feline version, the handler directs or—more often--lures the cat through tunnels, up and down ramps, over jumps, and through weave poles and other obstacles. Although it's a fairly new sport, it's growing in popularity in the U.S. and Europe. Here’s a dose of cuteness—a kitten beginning to learn about agility on a kitten-sized course-- .
Obviously, cats can be trained. They’re smart, athletic, and fun-loving animals, so the trick is to figure out what motivates the individual cat. Clicker training (operant conditioning) is a very effective way to teach new behaviors in a positive, reward-based way. Here are some more happily trained cats:

·         Spectacular clicker-trained agility cats -
Like all good training, feline agility provides a wonderful way to strengthen the bond between cats and their owners. It also gives participating cats a fun way to keep their bodies and minds in shape.

To be successful in agility, your cat must

·         have an outgoing, confident personality;

·         be in excellent health and physical condition;

·         love to play.

The sport is open to all kinds of cats, so it might be just the thing for you and your feline athlete. Even if you aren't ready to participate, why not visit a trial when the leaping, tunneling cats come to town and see what it’s all about. You can learn more at
Want to give it a try? Check out this video on getting started -

In the meantime, why not join Janet and Leo at their first trial? And while you’re in town, come see Jay and the other dogs compete as well—it’s likely to be murder for someone. Catwalk is available wherever books are sold, and autographed copies of all my books can be purchased using this form à


Animals in Focus Mystery #3

Midnight Ink, 2014

Animal photographer Janet MacPhail is training for her cat Leo’s first feline agility trial when she gets a frantic call about a “cat-napping.” When Janet and her Australian Shepherd Jay set out to track down the missing kitty, they quickly find themselves drawn into the volatile politics of feral cat colonies, endangered wetlands, and a belligerent big-shot land developer. Janet is crazy busy trying to keep up with her mom’s nursing-home romance, her own relationship with Tom and his Labrador Retriever Drake, and upcoming agility trials with Jay and Leo. But when a body is discovered on the canine competition course, it stops the participants dead in their tracks—and sets Janet on the trail of a killer.

"Animal photographer Janet MacPhail's latest adventure will delight dog lovers, cat lovers, and mystery lovers. Janet is excellent company, and although Leo the cat plays a starring role, I'm happy to report that Leo does not eclipse Jay the Aussie, who has become one of my favorite fictional dogs. Indeed, if Jay ever needs to move out of the pages of Sheila Boneham's mysteries and into a nonfiction house, he'll be more than welcome in mine. Five stars for CATWALK!" Susan Conant, author of Brute Strength and other novels in the Holly Winter series of Dog Lover's Mysteries





Sheila Boneham said...

Thanks for having me here today, Judy!

LD Masterson said...

Fascinating. I never thought of cats being trained that way. But then, I'm a dog person so what do I know.

Lovely post. Thank you.

Marni said...

Neat videos, Sheila. Had no idea! Will forward to our son with four grand cats.

Gloria Alden said...

Interesting blog and videos, Sheila. My two sister tabbies are very active in the evening, especially. They get more active when Maggie, my tri-color collie crashes for the night. They get a little intimidated when she tries to play with them in a doggie manner by bowing down with rump in the air and barking and them and then jumping a little towards them, too. After four years the cats haven't learned how to dog play, nor has Maggie realized that cats don't care for her type of play.