by Stacy Ferrara, Pawsitive Potential
There’s that old joke about “herding cats” that’s used to describe something extremely difficult, if not impossible. Cats have always been thought of as independent and aloof creatures that do what they want on their own time. This likely comes from comparing them to dogs who have entirely different behaviors and motivations. The reality is that cats can be trained to do a variety of things. It can be retraining a negative behavior to something more pleasing to their guardians (such as using the litter box) or learning to “SIT” on command. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is training the guardians to realize that training really is possible.
As a feline behaviorist, many of my clients have concerns about scratching furniture, aggression towards other cats in the home, or the most dreaded – not using the litter box. The specific method and training technique varies for each, but all of these behaviors can be retrained using some form of positive reinforcement. Reward the behaviors you want to encourage, and humanely discourage the ones you want to stop. Cats get the message and learn how to do what makes everyone happy.
Like any animal, training cats starts with finding the right reward that they’re willing to work for. Cats may be a bit more particular than dogs in what will motivate them, but all cats value something. It could be a particular brand of treat, a piece of fresh turkey or a favorite toy. Once you find that beloved favorite referred to as the high value reward, you save it for the training sessions and only use it when it counts. Training before meal time is helpful so they’re a bit hungry too.
Any valued treat should only be paired with doing something you want to encourage. Many guardians give treats randomly if the cat happens to look cute at that particular moment, or as a “dessert.” Without realizing it, they are reinforcing whatever was happening at that moment. If you cat jumps on the dining room table during dinner, don’t give any table scraps to appease them for the moment unless you like that behavior and want them to keep doing it. One scrap is a reward and reinforces jumping on the table again. Do they meow at 5:00 AM looking for breakfast? Each time a guardian satisfies that request by waking from sleep to prepare their meal, that morning wake up call will be reinforced and continue. Their behavior is being rewarded.
Teaching a cat to “SIT” or put up their paw for a “High Five” is accomplished using positive reinforcement too. I’ve seen some cats learn after just a few repetitions. You hold a piece of their favorite treat over their nose while they’re in a standing position. By slowly moving the treat backwards toward their tail, they are led into a sitting position and you instantly say “SIT” as you give them the treat. Any cat can be taught to do this and more. Remember to give the treat with command within 1-2 seconds of their bottom hitting the floor – cats have very short attention spans and won’t make the connection if it’s longer than that. Soon just saying “SIT” will be all they need to hear to go into the sitting position.
Training like this is a great way to provide mental stimulation and bond with your cat. Enrichment is important for all cats, particularly those kept indoors only or in shelters. The training is fun as long as the trainer is patient and allows it to be a fun experience – going at the cats pace. It should never be a negative experience with loud voices or frustration. When you see your cat start losing interest – the session is over. Start again later or another day.
There’s a big movement in the shelter environment that links training programs with increased cat adoptions. Jackson Galaxy (The self proclaimed “Cat Daddy” and host of “My Cat From Hell” on Animal Planet) initiated his Cat Pawsitive program that teaches shelters who apply for the program how to train their cats to do various things like “SIT” and “High Five.” They then measure the success of the program through adoption rates. His results have shown that cats going through the training program are adopted faster. It’s partly due to adopters being impressed with a trained cat, but also the fact that it raises their confidence levels. They’re more friendly and outgoing which are traits adopters typically look for.
Shelters are encouraged to work with the less adoptable cats which can include shy ones that stay in the back of the cage as people walk by. Boosting their confidence alone is huge in increasing adoptability even if they’re not learning to sit on command. It’s a win win particularly for older adult cats that aren’t always the first choice due to age, and have been stuck in a cage longer than others. The enrichment factor alone is a rewarding experience for them.
The next time you want to give a try to herding some cats, grab a few pieces of grilled chicken and give it a try. They might just surprise you.
Stacy Ferrara, CAFTP, CFTBS, is a Certified Advanced Feline Training Professional, Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist and owner of Pawsitive Potential, LLC. She is on the Board of Directors for Last Hope, Inc., an organization devoted to cat and dog rescue and rehabilitation, serving in a variety of capacities. Stacy has a BS in psychology and biology and is a Professional member of the Animal Behavior Society and The Animal Behavior Management Alliance.