Yesterday on the cat list, someone asked about where to get a cat trained in the U.K. for work as a service cat. I told him that I couldn't have answered even if he lived in the States. Following is a modified version of what I wrote to him--I added a few additional details regarding Inca's behavior.
Cat training is truly an untapped resource. I stumbled on my own cats' abilities. I got them as pets and never dreamed that they could do anything related to my disabilities/illnesses. I did not devise a formal training method for them since I had never heard of service cats.
Inca was quite old when I realized what she was doing for me. We had always played interactive games... She would meow, I would meow back or say something to her; or I would sing to her and make her meow, which would start the game.
When I first got her as a kitten, she would not permit me to touch her; so I used food rewards to coax her onto the bed and convince her to allow me to pet her. Food became a particular bonding activity for us: she would eat independently but never lost the eagerness to be hand-fed. Through the years, I hand-fed her often on my bed--this is where I enjoy petting her, so it was a natural place for me to hand-feed her and nurture her desire to be petted. I tend to seek my cats out for comfort when I am upset, and since Inca never came when I sought her as a kitten I started using treats to coax her when I was upset. In time she started coming when she heard me cry, whether or not I had treats.
Last year, when I moved away from Florida after all the hurricanes, Inca experienced what my vet now believes was a period of post-traumatic stress. She slept very deeply and would not play interactive games. I returned to the hand-feeding routine, this time using her favorite sleeping spot as the feeding spot at first. In time I moved the spot to the couch, and it became a nightly routine that I used to relax. She came out of her shell and returned to her games as well as to an offshoot of her previous behavior. She calls out to me in a certain tone when I am on the verge of a mild panic attack or major depressive episode, runs to that feeding spot, and waits for me to sit down so that she can be held or petted. Her tolerance for petting corresponds directly to the duration of my episode. When it's over, she gives herself a bath or walks away. In the days when my panic attacks were more severe, her signaling was different and she would not allow herself to be touched but would sit nearby and initiate vocal interactions with me until the episode subsided, at which point she would walk away.
Recently, I have been ill with the remnants of a cold/sinus infection. Inca is nearly ten years old; and during her life I have had many bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia that sometimes sent me to the emergency room for treatment. During the height of the illness, Inca retrieved me several times at the onset of a coughing fit and took me to the open couch bed, which I had not put away since my niece and a friend spent the night before the cold came on. When I cuddled up in the couch bed, Inca snuggled up beside me--not at my feet as usual, but beside me, in the position she used to use during my intense depression periods before my moods were regulated well with Topamax--and purr intensely. This is a cat who rarely purrs, and when she does it's very soft. This may be a case of not needing to convince those who believe; but I firmly believe that Inca was nursing me back to health.
Writing this all out, it is obvious that Inca has definitely been trained, although it was not intentional. I'm not certain that the same method of training will work with every cat. I think that training cats is partially an art, and part of the reason that Inca's training worked so well was that I found something that worked with her personality and I learned to read her signals as well as how to signal her. That's one of the most important things I could say about working with service animals: you're not just "using" the animal or "training" the animal to do what you want it to do "for you." It's truly a partnership between you and the animal, and you have to read each other and work *TOGETHER* to manage whatever it is you're managing.
Sierra, my other "service cat," is completely untrained, at least in the way that Inca has been. How she does what she does I will never know. She amazes me and everyone she meets. I don't remember when I figured out that she was alerting me to my seizures. It was probably about six or eight months ago, when I started paying attention to the frequency of my seizures after my migraines had been controlled. Sierra loves to snuggle up in bed with me. I had purchased a wireless keyboard so that I could work from bed sometimes when the migraines were out of control--I use speech output on my computer so can listen to it from across the room. So Sierra was used to me being available most of the time because of the migraines. But I had started to be up and around more, and I noticed that sometimes she was following me around meowing a lot, and if I followed her back to the bedroom she would jump up on the bed and purr. If I then left the room, she would repeat the whole process, very insistent; and if I went to bed with her she would settle down and be quiet. Sometimes she didn't even stay in bed right away... I noticed that she got in the habit of eating food as soon as I got in bed. So it couldn't be that she just wanted me to pet her.
I started looking for patterns in her behavior. I noticed that she wasn't doing it every day, and in fact many days she would sleep under the bed all day and be very happy. At some point I started to realize that she was starting this behavior near the onset of my seizures. The one that really convinced me was her absolutely terrorized mew about five minutes before a fairly significant episode that affected my balance and orientation and caused me to hit my head on a door frame. I realized that she was signaling me to go to bed--and she was always right. Sometimes the cause wasn't a seizure: sometimes it was excessive tiredness that came on quickly or an infection. But she was never wrong about the need to be in bed.
In May, I had a guest here who had sleep apnea and slept with a breathing machine. His machine was not quite up to speed due to needing a new facemask, and Sierra woke me to signal his apneas from the other room! I was shocked partially because she was signaling something different but also because she was doing it for a near stranger. She is generally terrified of new people: she hides for hours after anyone's arrival and runs if anyone reaches out to pet her other than me. However, at night she comes out and watches over anyone sleeping in the house, even if she will not approach them by day. When I woke a child I was watching just before her mother's late-night arrival to pick her up, Sierra protested loudly with her alert for tiredness. Her only training has been the reinforcement I have provided by going to bed when she alerts, in which case she gets her food and her snuggles; otherwise she continues pestering me. Apparently she is rewarding herself and I don't have to do a thing.
Sierra was adopted from a stray shelter in April, 2003. I suspect that she has had a litter of kittens in the past. In the summer of 2003, she nursed two four-week-old kittens voluntarily after my roommate adopted them. We had been told that they were eight weeks old; but Sierra heard them mewing and insisted on going to them and allowed them to nurse--and they got milk. She nursed them for six weeks. When we took them to the vet two weeks after adoption, we learned they were only then about six weeks old! Apparently Sierra knows her stuff! And apparently she trained herself. I don't question her, and this is most of the reason why I say that reading the cat's signals is so important.
Cats aren't dumb at all, and we have failed to give them much credit. We characterize them as "independent." Maybe they are only independent because we don't know how to build relationships with them that work! Even the most "independent" of my three cats has developed communication routines with me and would probably train and work well with me if I needed her to. I haven't nurtured that relationship as much as I have nurtured the relationships with Inca and Sierra. When she was first adopted, she was aggressive toward both people and other cats. She is still temperamental, but she has a heart of gold and is very sociable and lets me know when something is out of order in the house. She's a big snuggly pet, and her alerting is mostly limited to the empty food bowl. That's ok. I need a pet. :) I wouldn't characterize any of my cats as only doing things when they want to--not at the point when it matters. They may not come running anytime I call like my dog does; but they have never let me down when I needed them.