by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
It is possible to train cats! Almost every cat that has contact with humans has some level of ‘training’, even if only to recognise a person, time or place for feeding. Cats that live with us have various degrees of ability and appetite for training, even though they manage to train us pretty well! Every cat that uses a cat flap or window, who answers to their name or arrives home for dinner each evening, has been trained to do that.
Understanding how cats learn is the first step to training your cat. When the outcome of a particular action is favourable a cat will tend to repeat that action and even expand on it. Actions that do not have a benefit may be modified but will usually be abandoned.
The next most important concept to understand is what is favourable to your cat, and under what circumstances. For many cats food is a motivator while others would prefer attention, playtime or some other form of reward. Different conditions may need different rewards; for example before a meal food may be a reward but after the meal it may be a warm lap to sleep on.
Negative attention can be a ‘reward’ if the cat is highly attention-seeking, so something that we consider negative, shouting at the cat or chasing it away, can be seen by the cat as positive attention. This can escalate into fairly serious ‘bad’ behaviour on the part of the cat, more-or-less by chance.
Decide what you want to train your cat to do. Cats have their own ideas of what is possible or necessary so don’t expect your cat to bring in the newspaper or dance for visitors. Good behaviours like playing gently without biting, or letting you sleep past 4am can be trained. Useful ‘tasks’ include coming when called, walking next to you (not between your legs), sitting in one place rather than on the computer keyboard or kitchen counter and similar. Fun tasks include playing fetch, rolling over, lifting a paw to shake. Food puzzles are good for mental stimulation when you are not at home or available for interaction.
Tasks should be positive actions i.e. to do something, rather than not do something. Choose one task at a time and work at it until either your cat gets it right or makes it obvious that she will not or cannot do it. Break tasks into small steps and train one step at a time, building on previous trainings.
Not all cats are interested in extending their repertoire of tasks. They may not see the need, or the reward may not be valuable enough. Kittens are easier to train as they have young minds and are more open to new ideas. However, older cats often enjoy the mental exercise and like the chance to show their skills.
Plan the training sessions to keep the focus. A cat’s attention span is short so these sessions should be only 5 to 10 minutes at a time; beyond that they can become bored which negates any positive reward you may be offering.
Reward good behaviour and ignore – as far as possible – unwanted behaviour. The reward should be given as soon as the good behaviour is shown, either positively, as in lifting a paw, or negatively, as in playing gently. Cats ‘live in the moment’, so being slow with the reward may in fact reward the wrong action. Consider clicker training for those people – and cats – that have an affinity or need for ongoing training.
Punishment should never be considered an option at any time. Not being naturally social animals, cats view punishment differently to dogs and people; it tends to break down the relationship and can lead to increased unwanted behaviour.