May 13, 2014
Short answer: of course! Although cats are more difficult to train than dogs, it’s absolutely possible for any cat to be trained because any cat can learn.
Does your cat come running at the sound of a can opening? You’ve unintentionally trained your cat to do just that.
Let’s take a step back and talk about learning. Animals have to be able to register consequences (good, bad, or neutral) when they encounter sights/smells/sounds in their environment, and adapt their behavior accordingly in order to survive. Mammals, especially, are hardwired for these basics of learning. Animals will repeat behaviors that get good results, and will decrease or stop behaviors that get bad or neutral results. Our pets are learning all the time, whether we’re training or not.
So what is training? Training is the manipulation of both environmental cues and the consequences. Kiki covered some of the basics of training in this blog.
Cats need a lot more patience than dogs when you’re training them intentionally. The reason for this lies simply in their biology, but also in their history with humans. Dogs have been bred intensively to work cooperatively with humans, leaving them genetically predisposed to be social with people. Cats, on the other hand, have had some breeding history, but for the most part have been expected to work very independently at pest control. They do this because it’s what they do, not because they’ve learned to take direction from humans.
“What can you train your cat to do?” you may be wondering. Well, at a pet expo a couple years ago, I saw a show featuring cats… in a band. There was a cowbell cat, a cat plucking a little guitar string, and even a chicken pecking a cymbal. It sounded terrible, as you can imagine, but these kitties had been trained to “play” these instruments and perform other tricks! You can teach a cat just about anything: respond to their name, wave, sit, jump, target a stick, smack a cowbell, etc. Some people even train their cats to use the toilet and flush! I should also mention that a couple of the cats wandered off stage during the performance (they did eventually come back!). It just goes to show that cats can be trained to do amazing things, but they’re still very much independent and hard to motivate.
Here are a few of my favorite tips for training your cat:
- Use a clicker to say “yes, that’s the behavior I like!” A click is the same sound every time, whereas our voices can vary. Click and treat when you happen to see your cat doing something you like, and build from there.
- Use really good treats in small pieces. Cats are difficult to motivate, but they generally like food. Something really stinky (try tuna!) will keep them interested, and small pieces will entice them to work for more.
- Never use physical punishment. I would never advocate this for any animal, but it’s especially important for cats. Training should be fun! If your cat is being obnoxious, ignore the behaviors you don’t want and manage the environment to keep them from getting into what they shouldn’t.
- Keep sessions short to capitalize on that short attention span.
- Don’t expect too much. Some cats are more motivated, willing, and social. It’s in their DNA!
What have you trained your cat to do, intentionally or not? What has your cat trained you to do?
Lynda manages our dog walking team at Rover-Time. Her career focus is on dog training and behavior and her approach is based on science, positive reinforcement, and humane methods to improve relationships between humans and their pets. She’s also an assistant trainer at Animal Sense in the evenings and co-parents her own cat and two dogs, Surf and Ryan, with her other half Mary.