When Paula Garber, an Ossining resident who spent the better part of two decades as a freelance editor, decided to open her own cat training and behavioral business, reactions from friends and family were largely mixed.
“They were like, ‘Okay, Paula. Cats? Really?’” recalled a laughing Garber, who launched Lifeline Cat Behavior Solutions out of her home in 2014. “But once I started to get my business out there and I started to get really busy, they were like, ‘Wow, I guess you’re kind of good at this, and there really is a need.’”
It’s not entirely surprising that Garber happened to end up in a career involving animals. She grew up helping her father, a small animal veterinarian for more than three decades, at his doctor’s office in Briarcliff Manor, and her mother was a champion show dog breeder and rescuer.
“I was raised with lots of animals: dogs, horses, rats, pigeons, but I’ve always had this special thing for cats,” she said. “I was always that little girl in the neighborhood who would say, ‘Oh, I found a kitten,’ and I would bring it home.”
That desire to care for neglected cats has followed Garber into adulthood. She and her husband, Bruce, now own five felines of their own. Some of those cats Garber found as strays, while others simply showed up on her doorstep.
“I was looking for somebody to help me (train my cats), and there was nobody,” she said of her experience trying to domesticate her rescued animals. “So that made me think there’s a need.”
Garber also spent a number of years as a volunteer caring for and rescuing feral cats, an experience she credits with sparking her interest in training. Though socializing feral cats who are unaccustomed human interaction is no easy task, Garber seemed to have a knack for the work.
“That whole behavior thing sort of got under my skin, and I thought, ‘This is really cool. I want to learn more,’” she said.
In 2014, Garber received a professional certification in animal training and enrichment, along with a specialized certificate in feline training and behavior from Animal Behavior Institute, an online institution. She launched her business shortly thereafter and is now also pursuing a diploma in feline behavior science and technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute.
“A lot of people think if you have a cat behavior problem, you should just put the cat outside or just bring it to the shelter,” she said, “and there are so many cats that end up in shelters or abandoned because of behavioral issues that are relatively easy to resolve if you have just a little bit of information.”
Garber uses positive reinforcement techniques to help owners and their furry friends with a variety of issues, from fear and destructive behaviors to aggression towards other cats.
“There’s this perception that cats are untrainable. They’re super independent, they’re aloof, they’re all these things,” she said. “Cats learn just like dogs do, just like people do. Everybody learns the same way, all the mechanisms are the same. With cats, the only thing that might be different is that you really need to understand a cat to know what motivates them.”
With dogs, Garber said, that motivation is usually fairly easy to identify: nearly all dogs love treats. Cats, on the other hand, are a bit more picky.
“Some cats might not do certain things for food, so it might be play that is more reinforcing to them, or it might be brushing, or it might be just a scratch on the chin,” she said. “It’s really about figuring out what makes them tick or what makes them real excited to do something.”
She also uses clicker training, which involves making a clicking sound when a cat performs the desired task then presenting the cat with a reward. Using this method, Garber can teach cats commands like touching their paws to her hands, walking on a leash or coming when she calls them.
One of the most common problems she encounters with her clients, Garber said, are litterbox issues.
“Cats are very particular about their litterbox set up. Their litterbox preferences are very tied into their survival instinct because they’re most vulnerable when their in the litterbox,” she said. “So if there’s one little thing wrong or some little thing changes that doesn’t seem significant to us, it’s a big deal to a cat.”
In order to help resolve those various problems, Garber conducts in-home visits with her clients, where she evaluates each cat’s issues and provides ideas or techniques to help resolve with those issues.
In-home visits run $195, and Lifeline also offers a variety of packages that include phone and email support afterwards.
“It’s really gratifying to make it so that they can keep their cats and still keep peace in their homes,” she said.
Garber also works with local shelters and rescue groups, helping socialize and train cats in hopes of making them more adoptable.
“I’ve been able to help save a couple of lives because of that,” she said, “and that is really the most rewarding part of what I do.”
Another service Garber hopes to offer in the future is “catifying” her clients’ home, which may include the addition of cat shelves for climbing or the construction of “catios,” outdoor enclosures designed specifically for their pet.
“I’ve started working with a carpenter, and we’ve been building these catios together for a couple of people,” she said. “A lot of people want custom things, because they want them to look nice or they want them to go with the house.”
Though Garber continues her work in editing, she hopes to be able to transition to Lifeline full-time in the coming year.
“Things have really picked up,” Garber said, adding that she’s had more than 30 clients this year, twice as many as she had during 2016. “There’s no one else in the area that I can find that’s doing this, and there are a lot of cats out there that need help.”