Training a Cat like a Dog
by Barbara Florio Graham
© 2002; all rights reserved
NOTE: This article won the Sticky Paws Training Award for best article on training among all the entries in the Cat Writers Association 2002 Communications Contest. The $ 1,000 award, judged by Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, and Senior Vice President and Science Advisor with the ASPCA, was presented at the Cat Writers' Association annual conference in Houston, Texas, on November 23, 2002. The article was originally published in the cat section of Dogs in Canada Annual, and later adapted for WalMart Pets.
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Training a Cat like a Dog
by Barbara Florio Graham
Everyone assumes that cats can't be trained. But research at Cornell University's Feline Health Center reveals contrary evidence. "Although cats have a very small brain, their brain-to-body-weight ratio is better than that of any other domestic animal," according to Katherine A. Houpt, a veterinarian and Ph.D.
A dog owner who brings a kitten into the household must understand that dogs and cats learn differently. Dogs are pack animals who want to please "the leader." Cats, on the other hand, learn by observation and curiosity. Their reward is not pleasing you, but pleasing themselves.
It's important to train a cat. In case of an emergency, every household pet should react to two safety commands: "Come," and "Stay." Then, to protect both furniture and human health, it's important to teach "Get down." No one wants cat hair on their kitchen counters, or an allergic guest sharing the living room couch with Fluffy.
In my experience, training a cat requires five Rs: Respect, Respond, Reward, Reinforce, Repeat.
It's essential to respect the cat's basic dignity. Nothing offends a cat more than being laughed at. Although professional trainers have taught cats to dive into water or jump through a hoop set ablaze, these tricks are not only dangerous but offensive.
Instead, concentrate your efforts on those behaviours cats do naturally. Watch your kitten at play and take advantage of his or her natural actions. Before you begin to reward good behaviour, make sure you don't inadvertently reinforce what you don't want the cat to do.
Use your cat's name only when you're praising him or her. Begin by associating positive behaviour you want to reinforce with the word "good" and the cat's name. Do this dozens of times a day, repeating "Good Fluffy," every time she uses the litter box, as she washes her face or paws, when she sits quietly on your lap, approaches the scratching post you've provided, or plays with her toys instead of your things.
When I first brought Simon home from the Gatineau SPCA, I used his regular food as a reward. When he sat anywhere near his dish, I petted him, said the single word, "sit," and gave him food. He quickly got the idea that food appeared if he sat beside his dish!
I also began to use the words "good Simon," whenever he did what I wanted him to.
If you confine your new kitten to one room containing the cat's food, water and litterbox, she will welcome human companionship, so it will be easy to teach "come" by saying that word every time she runs to greet you as you open the door. She'll soon associate the word "come" with play, petting and food.
From the beginning, I suggest holding your kitten on your shoulder. Cats like this position, since they can see over your back, and it leaves one hand free to open a door if you're carrying the cat from one place to another.
Reinforce the "stay" command while Fluffy is on your shoulder. Hold her gently but firmly while petting and soothing her if she squirms a bit.
After your kitten has begun to come when you call her, and to remain on your shoulder, you can begin to allow her to explore beyond her limited domain.
Said in a sharp, loud voice, accompanied by a clap of the hands, use the "No" command without the cat's name , to discourage any unwanted behaviour. Decide what furniture is to be off limits, selecting most of the pieces in the living room as well as dining tables and kitchen counters.
But don't try to ban the cat from most rooms in the house unless you're prepared to keep doors closed. It's wiser to select one living room chair the cat is allowed to sit on, and make sure there are places where she can look out a window.
Since stretching and scratching are natural actions, it's not fair to discourage this without providing an alternative. Every time Simon approached a chair with outstretched paws, I said "No," clapped my hands, picked him up and brought him to the scratching post, where I then said "Good Simon."
This takes patience, but praise, petting and a food reward for using the scratching post reinforces the idea that this is the place to sharpen claws.
Many urban areas have both dog and cat leash laws, making it essential to train your kitten to wear a collar or harness. But even an indoor cat should have a harness with a tag, in case he slips out when no one's looking.
I gave Simon a harness with a bell on it to play with when he was a tiny kitten. After he had accepted it as a toy, he didn't protest when I fastened it around his belly.
The leash was a pretend snake he chased while I held the other end. After he accepted it as a plaything, I snapped it on his harness for a few minutes at a time and continued to play. I gradually increased the time the leash was attached, and soon I was able to pick up the handle and follow him as he trotted around the room. Now he walks on a leash without protest.
If repetition is the key to teaching basic commands, it's essential if you want to move on to performance behaviour. You need to set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day, teaching one small action at a time.
Before you can get your cat to give one paw and then the other, you have to teach her to "sit." Then, by gentle lifting one paw and quickly releasing it, say "paw" as you reward her with a tidbit. If you've been observing your kitten's behaviour for several weeks before you try this, you'll realize that she tends to use one paw more than the other when investigating a new toy. That's her dominant paw, and the one to start with.
Some animal trainers withhold food to get their charges to perform. But I don't agree with that. I suggest, instead, that you buy a nutritious treat and make it part of your cat's diet.
Give one piece at a time, each time the kitten responds appropriately. Repeat the desired patterns every day, and ignore failure. Save "no" for forbidden actions, and never use it in positive training.
Move very slowly from one behaviour to the next. Once Fluffy has learned to sit on command and give you her paw, you can take it, pet her instead of giving a treat, and gently pick up the other paw, asking for "the other one." Don't use the word "paw" again, because you want the cat to associate that command with the dominant paw.
Adding to the repertoire
If Fluffy seems inclined to fetch, use the command "bring," and reward her every time she delivers the crumpled paper or other toy anywhere close to your feet. Gradually bring your hand (holding the treat) closer and closer, reaching towards her only when you see her losing interest. Don't reward her if she drops the toy right away or turns her back on you.
Although Siamese are supposedly more intelligent than other breeds, I've seen tabbies who fetch crumbled foil balls. All the cats I've trained have been domestic shorthairs.
Simon performs an interesting behaviour that began with the "stay" command. After he learned to sit on command, I faced him with one finger ready to gently touch his nose while I placed the treat in front of him. Giving his nose a the slightest tap, I repeated "stay," not in a loud or scolding voice, but firmly, adding "good boy" as he remained in place.
At first, he stayed for barely a second before I picked up the treat to give him, but I gradually increased the time. I never allowed him to pick up the treat himself.
Next I added "touch it with your paw." I'd been reinforcing this command with Simon for many months, every time he tapped one of his toys or batted a ball. The command transferred easily to the treat, and after several more months of reinforcing this behaviour, I added another level, asking him to touch the treat with "the other one."
Don't be discouraged if your cat doesn't seem to want to do these particular things. What does he or she do naturally? A cat that adores crawling into paper bags may be easily trained to crawl through a cardboard tunnel. One who is always rolling over on the rug can learn to respond to "roll over."
Training sessions can provide an opportunity to
interact with your cat in a way that's fun for both of you. I see
proof of that every evening when Simon climbs on his stool, waiting
for me to reach for the treat jar.
© 2002, Barbara Florio Graham; all rights reserved.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Simon Teakettle the Younger, also known as Tiki, 1987-2006.