Why cats are difficult to train – Part 8

Cats are wonderful animals who can make real companions to humans. Most humans, however, do not understand cat behavior well enough to train them, and often use dog training techniques, which work very poorly on all but the most “dog-like” cats. Humans (and dogs) are social animals- we prefer to exist in a group. We hunt in groups (even today), and as humans have domesticated dogs, we’ve bred them for qualities that mesh well with our society.

Cats, on the other hand, are solitary predators. They do things that sometimes seem inexplicable to us. If you want to get a dog to do something, you make him do it, reward him, and after sufficient repetition, he will do it on command. Forcing a cat to do something is a sure-fire way to guarantee you will never see that behavior from that cat again.

So, how do you train a cat? Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a behavior modification (training) philosophy that uses bribes and rewards to teach behavior. The cat does the behavior, and you give him a treat. You accompany the treat with the verbal and hand signal and a clicking noise, and eventually he’ll do the behavior when you give the signal, and not just on his own time.

Negative reinforcement is also available to cat trainers- if you’ve ever tried to deter a cat from jumping on the table by squirting him with a water pistol, then you’re familiar with this tactic. However, you’ve probably also learned that the cat jumps on the table when you’re not home- the only behavior he’s learned is not to do it when you’re there.

I try to reserve negative reinforcement for behaviors that are actually hazardous to the cat, like jumping up on kitchen counters and the stove. A better way to teach a cat not to jump onto something is to train him to jump off of it. When he jumps up, give him a command and hand signal to get off, then put the treat down low. When he goes for the treat, click and praise, and give him the treat.

I’ve mentioned the click a couple of times in this article, and that’s because the foundation of this training process is the click. “Clicker training” was invented in the 60’s and 70’s and has been used to train dogs, cats, dolphins, horses, people, even fish and cockroaches. The principle is simple: while the animal is doing the behavior you want, you make a clicking noise (or some other slightly startling signal). You follow the click with a reward. The noise bridges the time between the behavior and the reward.

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