Integrating Renee: Chapter 5: Baby Steps
Updated: May 7
Written by Stephanie Meador
It was quite a relief to get some assistance with this whole process after having failed so spectacularly. Thankfully we now had a revised plan, which included breaking down some of the larger steps that weren’t working into several smaller ones, which were much more feasible.
The very first thing we needed to do was to go back to the last step where all the cats were comfortable. In this case, it would be having them divided by a baby gate. (The newer, more sturdy gate, to be precise.)
We wanted to be a little extra cautious, though, to make sure no fights broke out through the gate, so we wound up pulling out “Old Unreliable” (the wooden baby gate that we’d started off with) and heavily reinforced it with bungee cords like we had before, and put it a few steps down from the other gate. We once again had a“no mans land” on the stairs. Renee, however, had different plans. She was determined not to relinquish any of her turf. When I found her between the two gates mere hours into the redeployment of the wooden gate, I knew we had a problem. I put her back and waited to see just how she’d circumvented our barrier. Thinking it would take some time for her to do this again, I pulled up some funny animal videos to watch while waiting, which just happened to have the Mission Impossible theme playing to them. Within minutes (with the M.I. music still playing in the background), she was scaling the gate and was almost immediately over it. She had figured out how to get her paws in the little metal wire mesh grating and pull herself up and over. While it was a “facepalm” moment for us, it was also quite hilarious and provided some well-needed laughter. After she did it a few more times within the hour, we knew it was all for naught. It looked like we were going back to just one gate after all and hope for no slap fights between the bars.
We let the cats have a couple of days with the one gate - Now referred to as “Checkpoint Charlie” in our house - between them again to help them calm down and get back to normal. After that short reprieve, we were ready to attempt to move forward again. This time though, rather than just removing the barrier and expecting everyone to roam free with love, rainbows, and unicorns, we had a much more practical approach. We’d learned that we could break down the step of going from barrier to no barrier into smaller steps, which would hopefully make the transition process go more smoothly. Also, we were now only focusing on Binx and Renee. Getting Sophie on board would come later. Sophie fully approves of this plan, as she wants nothing to do with either of them anyway.
Step one of our new plan began with supervised playtime, across the room from each other, with no barrier, starting at 10 minutes at a time. We’d bring (or lure) Binx and Renee into a neutral room (one neither was territorial of), keep them far apart and keep them each occupied in a positive way, like playing with wand toys, treats, pets, etc. Basically, if we could get them in the same space, keeping them busy with positive stuff, they’d hopefully start to learn that good things happen when the other cat is around. It took some trial and error on our part, but we made it work. For instance, as we were progressively getting them closer to each other, one of the things I’d noticed was that Binx was more hesitant to play. I couldn’t figure out why he was so apprehensive about playing around Renee when she wasn’t being aggressive towards him. When I took a moment to step back and look at the situation, it finally dawned on me. He’s not used to having two humans hovering over him, both vigorously swishing around wand toys. It wasn’t Renee that was stressing him out, so much as it was us. I decided to test out this theory, and we both sat down on the floor, and used only one wand toy, a bit more slowly, (like how we usually play with him), and go figure, it worked.
From 10 minutes of time, and across the room from each other, we would gradually increase the time they were together and shorten the distance between them. Some days they didn’t show any interest in playing, so we just let them chill out during the “barrier-free” time. Having taken the one step that we couldn’t get past, and turning it into multiple smaller steps has really made all the difference.
Another new task we were advised to try was clicker training. Yes, you read that right, clicker training cats. I’d never heard of this before, but what did we have to lose? I had been wondering how this training pertained to the integration process and was amazed to find out that it can help you lure the cats away from each other in the event of a fight, rather than having you jump in the middle of it and aggravate things even more. Mind blown. Also, keeping them busy with clicker training is another activity you can do while they’re having “barrier-free” time. After reading several articles and watching a couple of videos on the do’s and don'ts of clicker training, we got to work. Binx took to clicker training like a fish in water, and he’s already got two commands down pat. Renee, as motivated as she is by her treats, isn’t quite as interested. We tried several different types of treats and tried using petting or toys in lieu of treats, but nothing motivated her enough to follow the prompts consistently. We’re still searching for that “magic” treat or reward that she can’t resist. Thus far, no luck. Binx however is so excited about “training time” that for a while would pester me with nonstop meowing if I don’t start at our usual time. He’d then run over to the spot where we do our training as if to tell me, “You’re late Mom!”.On a side note, while this is all going on, Sophie is snuggled up contentedly on our wool blanket on the bed, and with not even one lesson in training, has mastered the command of “Nap”. ::insert laughter here:: I had been worried about keeping her locked in a separate room while we did barrier-free time with Binx and Renee, as she would sometimes cry or scratch at the door, but we finally found which room and nice warm blanket she likes, and she is now quite happy to snooze in peace. When I open the door to let her out, she just glares at me, like, “Why’d you wake me up?” and stays put.
So, fast-forwarding about a week after starting the barrier-free time, I’ve noticed Binx getting cheeky with Sophie, which is not normal for him. I’m told this could be because he’s stressed out with moving too quickly with Renee. It makes sense. I did catch her sneaking upon him as if to play, but he didn’t see her coming and was not okay with that whole situation. So, playtime was cut short and Renee was put back downstairs. So, we’re backing up a step...again. We stopped the barrier-free time for a couple of days. We took a few days to have them play with wand toys together with the gate between them and then started back with barrier-free time, once again starting at ten minutes and far away from each other. We’re also continuing to play with them together at the gate while separated just to try to keep reinforcing that the other cat is something to associate with good feelings, not fear. My concern here is that Renee doesn’t always want to go back downstairs (especially during short visits). She’s now learned that if she’s being picked up while upstairs, that means she’s going back downstairs, and then will run away. In order to let her have more time up here now, when the play sessions are done, Binx gets put in the bedroom with Sophie, and Renee is allowed to snoop around upstairs on her own. We’re also making sure that when she gets put back downstairs, we reward her with treats, play, and snuggles. As we let them get closer during the barrier-free time, they easily get distracted by what the other is doing, “His wand toy looks way more fun than mine!” and wind up getting in the others space. We’re noticing now that Binx isn’t as freaked out when Renee comes up to him. They’ve even sniffed each other's noses. Although Binx does appear a little uncomfortable when Renee tries to sniff his butt, he reacts the same way when Sophie does too. Such uncivilized heathens!
So, all in all, things are back on track. We’ve divided a hard step into smaller steps, and if one of those is too much, we divide that up too. It’s time-consuming, and I must admit, sometimes when we’re tuckered out after a long day, the idea of just letting the cats live separately forever on two separate floors of our house does seem preferable, but the results we’ve got thus far are promising. So we’re just keeping at it. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the next steps go well.
Coming up next: Chapter 6: Beginning to see the light