Explaining how this cat so competently opens a door
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Explaining how this cat so competently opens this door

Explaining how this cat so competently opens this door. Screenshot from video.

This cat looks very smart in the way he opens a door. He positions himself well and uses his weight to lever the door handle down. Observers are generally impressed and even amazed by the way domestic cats do this. But I am not. It’s almost to be expected that some cats will do this even though it is unnatural behaviour for a cat.

The way cats learn to do it is based on ‘operant conditioning’ which is an off-putting scientific phrase. It simply means that cats do something and get a reward for it and therefore do it again and again at which point they have learned something new and in this case it is a human action.

In adapting to their human environment, domestic cats make sense of their surroundings and ‘can manipulate objects around them to get what they want’.

The interesting and perhaps important part of the learning process in opening a door is how does it all start? What makes a cat jump up and lever a handle open in the first place?

There are probably three points to make on this. Firstly, cats learn by watching us. They learn by observation. That, I would argue, gives the domestic cat an initial impetus to open doors because we do it all the time. Cats are also naturally inquisitive and want to know what is happening the other side of a door.

Thirdly, cats naturally jump up to vantage points to see what’s happening and to find a route around the closed door. If a cat jumps up onto the door handle (which looks like a platform) forcing it down and the door conveniently swings open he has an instant reward; he can go through to the next room and explore it, something cats do naturally and with interest. Here, then, is a perfect example of operant conditioning in action without it being part of deliberate human training.

Thereafter a cat may, over time, find different methods in pulling the handle down and it may be a simplified version such as reaching up and using his paws to pull the handle down.

I am not surprised because cats are quite smart and they are good learners and adapters. Humans do the same thing a thousand times over. Pretty well everything that we learn we do by operant conditioning it seems to me.

P.S. The quote is from Dr John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense.

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