By Paula Garber and Francine Miller
Why train a cat? Why indeed. Myths about the trainability of cats abound: “Cats can’t be trained because they’re too independent.” “Cats are difficult to train because they are not food motivated.” “Cats don’t need training like dogs do.” These are all common misconceptions, but get ready to kick all the myths to the curb and add some useful cat training tools and techniques to your repertoire.
Professional dog trainers will already know all about clicker training and many use the method regularly in their training sessions with dogs. What is less common is the concept of clicker training – or indeed any form of training – for cats. In fact, clicker training is a fun and unique way for cats and humans to communicate with each other, and better communication can strengthen the cat-human bond and build trust. It can also provide enrichment for cats in the form of mental and physical stimulation. Cats can be clicker trained to accept husbandry procedures like taking medication, being groomed and having their claws trimmed, and going into a cat carrier. You can also use clicker training to teach a cat to walk on a harness and leash and to do a variety of cute tricks, too. In addition, many feline behavior problems can be resolved using clicker training, and training can help a cat feel safe and secure in stressful situations as well.
How Cats Learn
By understanding how cats learn and how we can influence what they learn, we can create events to be perceived more positively than they may otherwise be perceived (such as going into a cat carrier). Just like with dogs, learning is happening all the time, regardless of whether you are intentionally trying to teach something. Learning can take place with one repetition or many. Experiences can either help reinforce what has previously been learned or teach something entirely different. Most importantly, as an animal is learning he is also developing negative or positive associations as to how things make him feel.
Although cats have their own motivations and priorities, they learn exactly as dogs or any other animals do, through habituation, sensitization, classical and operant conditioning, as well as observational learning and environmental changes.
The simplest type of learning is habituation, which is how all animals learn to ignore the parts of their environment that have no special consequence and are therefore irrelevant and can be ignored. This is particularly important for cats. If a cat is continually focused on the irrelevant it would divert vital attention and energy away from events that may have an impact on survival, such as nearby prey or predators. Becoming habituated to what is harmless in their environment is extremely important for cats.
The opposite of habituation is sensitization, i.e. repeated exposure to something that leads to an increased reaction from the animal, as opposed to a reduction in response (and the eventual ignoring that characterizes habituation). The repeated exposure may be to something the cat instinctively dislikes (such as going to the vet and getting an injection), which can lead to the cat becoming fearful of the vet or the hospital, even when no injection is planned. Once a cat has become sensitized to one situation, it may generalize to other, similar situations. Sensitization is a powerful protective mechanism that helps cats avoid anything they perceive as potentially dangerous.
Just as in dogs, both habituation and sensitization change the strength of a cat’s reactions, but they do not help him develop new responses. For this, more complex learning processes are necessary. One is classical conditioning. Many cat owners experience this when they start the can opener to open the cat’s food and the cat comes running. After several repetitions of hearing that sound predict his meal, learning has taken place that relies on a consistent pairing of the sound always followed by the food. Classical conditioning helps a cat to make better sense of his environment.
For a cat’s behavior to change, operant conditioning is needed. Operant conditioning is also happening all the time, although it involves the consequences to a behavior influencing what happens next. For a cat to learn that any outcome is associated with his behavior, it is usually essential that the consequence occur immediately (positive or negative).
When working with cats we also use environmental changes to create behavior change. For example, if a cat is scratching a piece of furniture and we want to stop that, we would do something to the environment by adding a deterrent (such as placing Sticky Paws™ on the place being scratched) while also providing an appropriate cat scratcher nearby and reinforcing the use of that object.
Finally, like many species, cats learn by observing other cats. Both kittens and adult cats have been shown to be able to learn to perform a task by simply watching an experienced cat complete the task.
Taken from the article Clicker Training for Cats, first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp. 16-23.
About the Authors
Paula Garber holds a master’s in education and is a certified animal training and enrichment professional and certified feline training and behavior specialist. She is also certified in low-stress handling, and pet CPR and first aid, and is pursuing a diploma in feline behavior science and technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. Based in Ossining, New York, she owns and operates LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions, is currently chairwoman of PPG’s Cat Committee and is a supporting member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also serves on the Cat Protection Council of Westchester in her community.
Francine Miller is an applied animal behavior counselor and associate certified dog behavior consultant (IAABC certified associate) who has 13 years experience treating dogs and cats with behavior problems. She currently offers house calls for behavior consultations throughout San Diego County, California under the business name, Call Ms Behaving, and overnight pet sitting in the area around Carlsbad, California where she resides. She is also the vice chairwoman of the PPG Cat Committee.