On the use of force

I am co-authoring a modest book on cats with another veterinarian who, like me, has had experience with a wide variety of species in different clinical and research contexts. Of course, as Andrew is approaching 80, his experience goes well beyond mine. Recently, I reviewed his chapter on “training” cats so that they don’t behave in ways that could put strains on their relationships with humans, such as scratching furniture and jumping onto tables and countertops. His advice was to use the classic water-spray method that seems to have worked for some people, some of the time. As a use of force, it is a relatively gentle means, but it is a display of force nevertheless. (My son likes to say on behalf of all animals: curse you humans and your opposable thumbs!)

Several years ago, I tried the water-spray method of discipline, but ended up finding it messy and annoying, both to myself and to my young cat. For example, I usually didn’t reach the spray bottle in time (it was never put back in the same place), or I missed; and if I didn’t, I ended up with a wet, resentful cat who reverted to jumping on countertops when I wasn’t home just to prove he could still do it, if only to himself. Today, that same cat is 14 years old, and he still jumps on countertops, to get a drink of water from the tap in the sink or to evade harassment from the more energetic cats on the floor. In short, I gave up, and reasoned that the only way to have cats off tabletops was to gently remove them, over and over again, if necessary, until they tired of the exercise.

Of my three other cats, only one is prone to jumping on tables and countertops. I often find his footprints on the counter; of course this is annoying and mildly unsanitary, but I tolerate it because it’s not a huge issue in the scheme of things. In fact, in my experience most objectionable cat behaviour requires an intelligent use of resources to create solutions that benefit everyone, or gentle dissuasion. The use of forceful methods will usually produce unintended results, such as a different objectionable behaviour, or a neurotic and unhappy cat that never reaches his or her full potential for amiable companionship.

My mother often mentions to me that her cat doesn’t dare jump onto countertops, tables, or even certain chairs in the house, because he remembers being smacked for it back when he first moved into the house and was a very easily intimidated cat. The use of force worked for her. But the cat is clever. While my mother is the one who feeds and cleans up after the cat, she gets very little love in return. Cat is in love with my father, follows him everywhere and gives him all of his best attention and lovingest expressions. Cat knows that my father wouldn’t ever lift a hand against him, even if he wanted to; my father is just like that – even though he says the cat deserves a smack for waking him up at night, he would never dream of actually doing it. I guess that’s OK with my mother, because she doesn’t want cats following her everywhere or waking her up anyways.

The same principle applies with regard to the use of force in training dogs. It may produce certain results, if only because dogs have a hierarchical concept of social relationships that cats find abhorrent, so the use of force will go a certain way to ensuring obedience. However, most responsible dog trainers and experienced owners know that there are ways of training dogs without using force. They use consistency, fairness, and persuasive togetherness to get the best results: an obedient, non-neurotic and non-fearful canine companion.

I have no training in diplomacy, political science or even human psychology, but even so it has always been obvious to me that the use of force is nearly always a missed opportunity and a tragic mistake that produces unintended consequences. I know this is the case with kids and spankings; I have always detested the very idea of using slaps or spankings to teach them obedience or as a punishment. Humans are animals, and animals do not respond well to the use of force, in any context – even when human reason or religion proclaims that it is for their own good.

The current Israeli offensive in Gaza has reminded me of the tragic uselessness of force. Simply put, there is simply no way that the Israelis will achieve anything remotely positive from bombing and marching into Gaza, no matter how often they repeat their message that this is about subduing the threat of Hamas or ensuring future security for Israeli citizens. The use of force is always a mistake. I would’ve hoped that the accumulated experience of decades – millenia in fact – in the Middle East would have taught them otherwise.

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9 Comments on “On the use of force”

  1. deBeauxOs Says:

    Helen Suzman, a tireless fighter for racial justice in her country just died on January 1st at the age of 91.

    The former president of South Africa P.W. Botha, one of the most ruthless enforcers of apartheid laws, once referred to her as “a vicious little cat” ā€” a comment that Suzman did not view as an insult as she loved animals and was surrounded by them in her home.

    You make the most wonderful and thought-provoking connections in your writing, brebis noire.

  2. Beijing York Says:

    Another stellar post brebis. Interesting tidbit about Helen Suzman deBeauxOs. For me, “a vicious little cat” evokes images of a spirited fighter, working against all odds to survive.

  3. skdadl Says:

    brebis noire, I have a countertop cat (you knew that, didn’t you), and share your intuitions about these problems.

    In our situation — six cats, two of whom are ferals — you learn fairly quickly to think from the inside, to think along with each of them and figure out what works for each of them. The countertop cat is not one of the ferals — she’s the runt, and she has never been able to adjust to the other guys. She sits with me at my desk or she sits on a pad on the counter, where no one else is allowed — those are the only two places she feels safe.

    How did the other cats figure out that they can’t jump on to the counter? Same way you are doing it — I just kept lifting them down and saying NO, a word they all understand. They see that Guinny is allowed to stay up there, and they finally accepted that.

    I’ve never believed in behavioural psychology, and I’ve never believed in punishment. I have never struck an animal (or a person), and I can’t imagine what result that could have except to inspire complicated feelings of fear and resentment and rebellion.

    Our culture has a strange relationship with the notion of punishment. I read the news today, oh boy, and I read people talking about teaching other people a lesson, and I fear for us. In itself, that attitude is ugly, and then in practical terms, it does not work and we know it does not work.

    The only lessons that matter are the lessons we learn from thinking from the inside with another living critchur. To me, anyway, that works, although it is hard work because you are uncertain for so long about where you’re going. The ferals have taught me a lot on that score, simply because there is no point in fighting them– they’d win any fight. Love them, listen to them, pay attention, and they learn very very slowly to love back.

    I’m sure that my countertops are unsanitary. I figure that gives me a more robust immune system. *wink*

  4. Chimera Says:

    I never tried to “discipline” my cats, because instinctively I knew it wouldn’t work on them. Or it might work for a bit, then they’d get revenge. Having seen what my sister-in-law’s cat did to her wardrobe (dragged clothes off hangers onto the floor and pissed all over them) in revenge for something, I decided early on to concede defeat and just wash the counters off any time I wanted to use them. And strangely enough, my cats never spent a lot of time on the counters. Only when I brought shopping bags home and they couldn’t wait to see what I brought them… šŸ˜‰

  5. mouthyorange Says:

    Your writing is wonderfully metaphorical, brebis noire.

    And I love all the comments here, too. Like you say, skdadl, about thinking inside along with another and listening to them and paying attention ā€¦ in order to work out arrangements that individuals with different needs can really accept ā€¦ it takes the ability and the willingness to identify with others, to really feel with their needs and point of view enough to be able to honour them. (I shudder to use the word honour these days ā€” I feel it’s been so hijacked into trite new age usage. But it’s still a good word.)

    For me the question is: why can some people be willing to respectfully feel into where someone else is coming from whereas other people either cannot or won’t? If I may be so presumptuous, I think a lot of why we’re so stuck in the world hangs on that.

    I’ve been learning an awful lot over the past decade or so about emotional trauma and its effects on people spiritually, psychologically, and physically. It’s so incredibly damaging. When people are traumatized, they cannot look without fear and distrust. Terror informs their way of seeing. It’s not about choice of perspective. They don’t have rational control over their way of seeing, and if, out of the best of intentions, they do try to override their fear-based viewpoint and look more broadly at things, it doesn’t last long before they careen into reactivity again.

    So I look at the situation in the Middle East and I see two horribly traumatized peoples, both of whom have been historically reviled and shat upon by lots of other people in the world, and now each perceiving each other as the present threat and reacting out of that and attacking the other who becomes even more traumatized and so it gets deeper and worse instead of resolving and starting to get better as it needs to.

    I think, brebis noire, that trauma explains why the accumulated experiences of millennia don’t seem to make a difference. Somehow, the trauma has to heal ā€” has to move, psychologically ā€” before people who are damaged by it will be ready to look at things differently. But how will this happen?

  6. brebisnoire Says:

    Thinking from the inside is something only individuals can do, so I’m idly supposing that’s why we don’t do it as a society, or as a species. So-called “groupthink” makes it easier to discount individual experiences of suffering and trauma, and chalk the use of force up as being better for the common good (of one side, naturally).

    As for the Middle East, Israel in particular did not allow its traumatised generation to voice its suffering, except when it was done within an approved “official” narrative. This narrative thus became useful for the next generations to conveniently forget a wealth of understanding, and to operate in similar ways to those who oppressed and tortured Jews in Europe.

    And of course animals are never able to express their suffering in written or oral history, so their story only gets told by sympathetic humans who take the time to listen and understand from the inside.

  7. Alison Says:

    Cats, like people, have different personalities. When Willow and Iris were little I would make a small hissing noise to indicate displeasure and I could tell they both got it right away although sometimes I would have to pick them up and put them on the floor. Willow would lie in wait for me to enter the kitchen and then jump up onto the counter and off again very quickly just to get away with it while Iris never did.
    Thing is – much human activity doesn’t take place at cat level and standing at the counter cooking is quite a lovely opportunity for a visit when you get home from your day so now I allow them their spot on the edge of the counter to watch the proceedings – Iris happy just to sit, Willow predictably reaching out the occasional paw to see if it will elicit a hiss. Humans who don’t care for this cooking arrangement are free to eat elsewhere.

    “the use of force is nearly always a missed opportunity”
    Yes. Moreover the use of force also often appears to preclude learning anything from its exercise.

  8. brebisnoire Says:

    very true, Alison – very much like people when you start to analyse it. This morning, I had to take my “top cat” off the countertop because he was in the way – since the arrival of cat no. 4 he’s taken to perching on the countertop more often, and appreciates the taste of fresh dripping water from the tap – anyways, he looked at me with an expression that said “what the HELL do you think you’re doing?” and he jumped right back up. Four times in fact, until I gave up, laughing. I learn to work around him, and it gives him a great opportunity to express his affection by head-butting.

    When I remove cat no. 3 from the countertop, he just lollops away as if to say, “ya, I know, stop nagging!” My other two cats don’t even try (unless it’s to lick the butter, which is a no-no for everybody).

    I sometimes use the hiss too – it works the first few times for nearly every cat, to stop them from scratching, for example, but for some of them, the effect does wear off after a while.


  9. Well said in all respects. Cats, kids, Gaza. Violence breeds violence & superior power breeds guerrilla warfare.


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