Why cats are difficult to train – Part 2

Cats are difficult to train because they can somehow sense when you have an ulterior motive when you ask them to do something. Call it ESP, call it an ability to read body language, call it wahtever you want, but if you want to train your cat, you have to be completely honest with yourself and your cat. I can call my cats to me from across the room, no matter what they are doing; when they are let out into the hallway for supervised “outside” time, I can summon them to me no matter how far away they are, WITHOUT food. How? Simply by projecting the attitude that nothing would make me happier than to pet them. Cats adore being petted, perhaps even more so than having a treat.

Consistency is absolutely essential to training a cat. Once you figure out what behaviors you want, go about reinforcing that behavior EVERY time it’s displayed, and negatively reinforcing the unwanted behavior. It is not enough to simply scold or squirt the cat for doing something wrong-all that teaches is how to avoid getting squirted while doing something it’s not supposed to. Positive reinforcement is far superior to getting a good behavior out of a cat than punishment methods, but it’s far more difficult to do, because we’re so used to scolding and yelling when things go wrong, but not appreciating when things go right.

Shadow eats much faster than Tibbles, by virtue of having her teeth, so when she finishes, she saunters over to Tibbles’s bowl and starts chowing down. She is much better about sitting and waiting for Tibbles to finish than she used to be, thanks to lots of petting, lots of praise-and throwing empty bottles, boxes, spoons, masking tape rolls, what ever’s on hand, at her when she starts invading Tibbles’s bowl. This is an illustration about how positive and negative reinforcements work in tandem to get a wanted behavior.

Training a cat is made even more difficult by the fact that they are so easily bored. Their attention span, if my cats are anything to go by, is about five minutes. However, it takes about 2000 behavioral repetitions before an animal (cat or dog) learns to associate a command with an action. This means that not only do you have to consistently reinforce the behaviors you want (or don’t), you have to do it over the course of several days, if not weeks. Cats remember things readily, but you must consistently reinforce the behavior you want.

Cesar Milan is famous for saying, “Exercise, discipline, and affection,” as being the three things dogs need from their owners. Cats need consistency with the affection you show them. Consistency with the affection will make it far less likely that your cat will sulk for days after you step on its tail, or refuse to let you pick it up because it hates claw clipping. It takes a lot of discipline on behalf of the owner to train a cat, but the result-a well-trained cat that comes when it’s called, gives high-fives for a show, and loves you to pieces-is worth it.

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