Tips on How to Train Your Cat
Dr Caity Venniker
When it comes to training pets, dogs have always pushed their wet noses to the forefront and taken the spotlight. And understandably so - with hundreds of years of selective breeding behind them, retrievers want nothing more than to fetch; scent hounds sniff out anything from illegal drugs to the forgotten toffee wrapper in your pocket; and terriers are pretty much frantic at any chance to chase a rat (or make a friend/go for a walk/dig a hole/get dirty etc forever!).
Cats have a far shorter history of domestication and genetic selection. They have fewer breeds and are in general less motivated to please us. The personalities of cats are also dictated to a far lesser degree by breed stereotypes; and their unpredictable natures make training them a lot trickier but also very rewarding. While I think some roles are best left to our more people-pleasing pets (the concept of a guide-cat is enough to give me nightmares), our feline companions are much more trainable than you may think.
Training happens in our homes all the time, without us even being aware of it. And it goes both ways. Our cats are in fact very good at training us. For example, our cat, Gorbachev; effectively trained my husband to feed him on demand in the mornings. His desolate cries of starvation resulted in breakfast, which reinforced his faith in the command; and my husband was rewarded with a grateful Gorbi and a peaceful sleep. But it didn’t end there. All good trainers understand that progress must be made in small, incremental steps. Either Gorbi had a firm grasp of this, or a slightly weaker one on the concept of time; but unsurprisingly the breakfast command was given earlier and earlier every day. Sneaky!
To stop unwanted behaviours such as this, ignoring the cue is fundamentally important. Any response is essentially giving attention, which in itself, is rewarding. When in the process of trying to “untrain” an unwanted behaviour, animals tend to go through an extinction burst. This is a stage where basically the unwanted behaviour steps up a gear, in a desperate effort to get the desired response. In Gorbi’s case, the extinction burst was shown by his breakfast command kicking into turbo mode - a dramatic upscaling in both volume and dramatic effect, to a loud yowling interspersed with heart-breaking pleas for mercy. I’d love to tell you that we weathered the storm bravely; that we stoically withstood the extinction burst and are now the proud owners of a reformed cat. The truth is that we now have a fancy automatic feeder, which is loaded every night and delivers breakfast at 5am every morning! We like to call it a compromise.
Correcting unwanted behaviour takes time and patience. Punishment is not advisable in cats. This is due to a number of reasons. Besides the possibility of it inadvertently being rewarding in the form of attention; it also risks the consequence being associated with you, the trainer, rather than the behaviour itself. This can lead to your cat becoming fearful of you, or stressed, which can have a negative impact both emotionally and physically on your cat’s wellbeing. Cats are extremely sensitive and losing their trust must be avoided at all costs.
Cats are trained effectively through positive reinforcement. This is when a desired behaviour is rewarded with a favourable outcome, to reinforce the behaviour. Positive reinforcement can be achieved through a treat, or a cuddle, or praise. The best form of reward depends on the cat, and whether they are more motivated by food, affection or attention. The reward must be given immediately after the action that you want to reinforce, so that the connection is clear. For example, when we feed Gorbi his dinner, we make a clicking noise (the same one used to ask a horse to move forward), and he is fed as soon as he comes to eat. He is not exposed to this sound in any other context and has a very strong association between the click cue and the reward for coming. It has been an easy and useful form of training, because if we can’t find him, he will always come running when he hears the click (and then he always gets a treat!).
Clicker training is a useful tool in helping to clarify exactly what behaviour is being rewarded. This method uses a clicker (a small instrument with a button that makes a click sound) to eliminate the delay between the action and the reward. The animal being trained learns that the click is associated with a reward and so it serves as an immediate signal that the goal has been achieved, which avoids confusion.
Another tip to simplify training is to focus on achieving only one behaviour at a time, and also to keep your sessions short. Concentration span will vary from cat to cat, but generally aim for training sessions of only five minutes two or three times per day. If your cat loses interest, then allow the session to end - trying to force the issue may undo the work you have done or even create aversion to the desired behaviour. It’s important to remember that cats are unique individuals, and their moods vary. Sometimes Gorbi is keen to go out for a walk on a harness and leash, and at other times he has no interest or is nervous. It’s better to allow your cat to dictate how the training session will go, so that they feel in control and can build confidence in themselves and in you.
Cats can be trained to do many different things. These include to come when called; to sit; shake hands; high five; tolerate their nails being clipped; and to go for walks on leashes; among many others. The success of certain training depends on the individual – a cat with a lazy personality is unlikely to ever master the art of fetch, but a really playful cat who thrives on physical interaction might! Training can be extremely rewarding for both you and your cat. It provides stimulation and can strengthen your relationship. With patience, and respect for your cat’s moods and their unique personality, you may find that you learn a lot about them, and have fun in the process!
This week while I was writing this blog, I decided to try teaching Gorbi to high five. I’ll let you know how it goes!
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