Cat Training: “But it’s so difficult!”
I have never understood the difficulty that some people have training cats. I find them intelligent, interested and engaged when I work with them, so I assume it should be the same for other trainers. However, I frequently hear that people are having trouble and becoming frustrated when they try to work with cats. So when I was recently asked to do a class on training cats, I sent out a survey to tease out the real reasons people find it challenging to work with cats. The results caused me to pull up my standard “Cat Training” PowerPoint and toss it out. I did this because the problems aren’t a lack of understanding about the general principles of behavior and learning science, operant learning or respondent conditioning topics. Those were all things that I thought people needed to understand in order to train cats—and they do—but I was leaving out some very important elements of simply understanding how cats operate. I’ve been around cats my whole life, so I find them pretty easy to understand, which makes them also straightforward to train. I needed to put myself in the learner’s role and find a way to relate my own experiences to someone finding it difficult to train a cat.
How is a tortoise like a cat?
I stumbled on a video of me “training” a tortoise at the 2012 IAABC conference. That was the key! I remember trying to find out all the details necessary to work with that tortoise and not getting any answers. My teammate and I had to experiment and figure out what worked. We had to determine what behavior to teach, how to teach it, and how to deliver reinforcement. To succeed, we had to learn about tortoises in general and the specific tortoise in front of us, using only observation of his (or her?) behavior in response to our own. We were given strawberries, which he did seem to like, and we were shown how to pick him up and turn him around if he left the tarp area. Then we were on our own!
We had to figure out what to use as a target and how to deliver the strawberry so that he could actually see it and in a way that would avoid him biting us. We had to observe how long it took him to eat a strawberry, how soon he was ready for the next target presentation, and how to avoid having him think a rivet on the tarp was the food. These are the types of topics that came back in the survey about training cats.
What’s the point?
There are many reasons you might want to start training your cat, or other cats in your care. I work with shelters to improve the “cuteness quotient” of cats that are more challenging to get adopted. We might teach some longer-term residents or other adoption-challenged cats to wave, give high-fives, or walk on a leash in order to set them apart from the crowd.
I’ve worked with a lot of different clients, from cat owners to veterinarians, to teach husbandry behaviors such as voluntary blood draws, grooming, insulin tests, nail trims, and more. I frequently use marker training and other positive reinforcement behavior modification techniques for my clients experiencing behavior challenges with their cats by focusing on exercises that give the cat something to do rather than focusing on what not to do. Many challenging behaviors can be greatly improved by a combination of nose target, go to place, and a recall behavior. Some of these require at least an intermediate, sometimes expert, level of training ability from the handler, and are therefore not a good place for novice cat trainers to begin.
Cats just want to have fun
I think most people should start in a different category: FUN! Take the pressure off yourself and your cat by focusing on the fun and mental enrichment element in each training session. If your cat won’t engage with you, wanders away, or can’t figure out that you want him to do a backflip, just consider this to be an excellent opportunity to observe your cat and learn more about his needs. Pay attention to her body language, the time of day, location, activities going on around you, and any other thing you notice that could be affecting your cat’s desire to participate. I highly recommend you video your sessions whenever possible. You will be amazed at the discoveries you find when you watch it! It is an excellent way to evaluate the clarity of your communication, use of space, and timing. You might also notice communicative signals from your cat that you missed in real time.
Training begins before “training”
Many people focus on the training session itself and don’t realize success often rests on events occurring prior to the session, either immediately or on an ongoing basis. If you have a poor relationship with your learner and then suddenly decide it would be great to have a cat that can ride a skateboard, your training session isn’t likely to go well. Cats that are really motivated by a reinforcer, such as food, might be more forgiving of a handler they don’t have a solid positive relationship with, but other cats are likely to have little desire to participate in your new-found passion for training. Relationships are built through everyday interactions, so you need to become something the cat wants to engage with. Your attitude about your learner also plays a big part in forming a successful training partnership. If you think your learner is not very smart, is aggressive, or fits some other derogatory label, those thoughts will taint your interactions.
Learners need to be physically and mentally prepared and able to perform the tasks you are asking of them. I have seen people unhappy that a cat is not participating in training sessions, doesn’t seem to understand the goal behavior, or quits easily, but not realize it is because the cat has a physical problem. I’ve seen cats with teeth or mouth issues, disc disease, pain related to partial toe amputation, constipation, stomach disorders, and other issues, labeled negatively as uncooperative, stupid, mean, and so on. It is obviously a priority to take care of the cats’ health whether or not they are expected to participate in a training program, but cats’ behavior relative to your training attempts can give you clues to their wellbeing.
Set your cat up for successful learning
We all know we need our training tools for a session. We prepare our food reinforcers by readying them for delivery, whether it’s cutting something into bite-size pieces, putting baby food in a squeeze tube, or grabbing our training pouch full of treats. Or we might gather a favorite interactive toy or plan a natural reinforcer and grab our marker—whether it’s a clicker, whistle, or our tongue. We choose any props, such as a mat or stool, and decide where to place them. Hopefully, we have considered the distraction level of our training area and whether our learner will feel safe and ready to learn. Unfortunately, I often see at least two important things missing from the training area: access to water and a litterbox. Frequently a learner would like to participate longer but can only handle a certain level of dry snacks before having to leave for water. And of course, you can’t focus on learning something when you have to go potty! If you don’t have both available, you may not realize the cat just needs a short comfort break.
Opportunities for choice
The importance of learner choice and control are gaining traction in the academic and practical fields and should be important parts of any training plan. In general, correctly applied positive reinforcement training provides ample opportunity for both. Incorrectly applied, it can create frustration and a lack of enthusiasm from a learner. Consider your training goals and then find ways to let the cat have input on session designs. For example, if you are doing fun sessions to teach high-five, does it need to take place on the floor or can you move it to a sturdy table that the cat likes to be on? Can you provide multiple types of reinforcers and let the cat choose which one she wants? Can the cat retreat from the training session to a safe area as needed? This was an important element to include for the cat in this video from an NAVC workshop.
The goal was to have the cat participate in a mock ultrasound procedure, but the cat wouldn’t come out to the equipment. The vets made a safe retreat zone that the cat could go to any time he chose. Pretty soon he was eagerly participating in the activities and only retreated occasionally, such as when a new person approached the table.
Distraction and focus
Distractions are everywhere! It is your job to reduce distractions as much as possible during the beginning stages of training any behavior. As the cat gains skills, you can evaluate adding appropriate levels of distraction into the process. If you take a cat’s-eye view of the area, you can probably find obvious distractions that need to be minimized. For example, if you have multiple cats, dogs, humans, or other critters in the area, you may need to do something to occupy them away from your training space. Pay attention to auditory and olfactory stimuli as well because these are often overlooked by the trainer but highly noticeable to the cat. Notice your own contributions as well. For example, if you chatter excessively or pet the cat after handling smelly treats, you could be slowing down your training and possibly adding a negative element to your sessions. It is particularly vital to protect your training sessions from incidents that surpass distraction and move into the realm of scary occurrences.
The camera flash could be aversive enough to taint future training sessions for this cat.
Something that really bothers your learner can taint anything occurring around the training process at the time of the incident. This could mean your cat stops engaging in the current session, becomes anxious if she notices any signs of a training session being arranged, or even becomes wary of you, the treats you were using, or the area in which the scary thing occurred.
Trainers also need to stay focused! It is easy to turn around and reach for more treats, adjust the camera or look at your new text messages and miss a great opportunity to reinforce the cat. If you are too disconnected from your learner, he might just choose to leave the session. If you have to focus on something besides your training partner, you can end the session, ask for a solidly trained stay behavior, give enough treats to tide the cat over until you return, or something similarly interesting for the cat, but don’t just abandon her. In this video, you can see that even though I am fiddling with the camera, I’m still keeping a focus on Jazzy Cat.
What’s it worth?
I get a lot of questions on what to use for reinforcement when training cats, particularly cats that are not food motivated. First, I state that they should be worrying about the cat’s health, not training sessions, if the cat is truly not food motivated. More accurately, they usually mean these cats are not motivated by the food they are being offered for the behavior they are being asked to perform under the conditions they are being asked to perform it in. The size, amount, and type of reinforcer need to be worth working for at the time of the training session, and need to accommodate the type of behavior being trained. The reinforcement may also vary between acquisition and maintenance phases of training and should be evaluated for effectiveness at every session.
If you are working on a new skill, you need to break it down into small enough pieces that the cat has a high rate of reinforcement in his opinion. That means you need to pay attention to what your cat is telling you rather than what you think should be enough. One thousand percent of your focus should be on the cat. Let your cat actually eat his bite or lick of food before asking for the next repetition, advancement, or a new behavior. Some cats will gulp it down and be ready in about two seconds while others may need to sniff the offering for a bit, then take an investigatory taste before committing fully. Then they might take a few seconds to chew, swallow, and refocus on you. If you have ruled out health issues, that is absolutely fine! If you allow these cats plenty of time to adjust, they will usually become faster as they get comfortable with each type of food.
If you need to get one of these tentative cats to engage in serious operant or respondent learning sessions, don’t be afraid to experiment with various foods like butter (melted or cold), sour cream, broccoli, and crackers, because some cats have strange preferences. Obviously, you should ask a vet if there is any serious potential harm for a specific cat to have certain foods in small amounts for a short time. The benefits can outweigh the dangers, depending on the situation.
You also might be able to convince one of these cats that your reinforcer really is worth trying by letting him observe a sibling cat or dog enjoy eating the food.
Creativity and patience
I have even pretended to enjoy a few bites of something gross myself in order to convince a cat to try it. Be very careful if you use any delivery method that could make a scary sound. For example, one air spurt from a can of squeeze cheese can be enough for a cat to determine that the stuff is evil, and so are you.
It does take a bit of work to determine what non-food reinforcers you can use with cats, just as it does with dogs or other species. We are often quite spoiled by dogs that gleefully accept food with such enthusiasm. Many cats do require some creative thinking when it comes to reinforcement in general and non-food types in particular. This is very much the epitome of Dr. Susan Friedman’s “a study of one.” Are there interactive toys, a toy to chase, or activities the cat will work for and that can further your training session? I have had client cats that will work for a vibrating massager, access to the outdoors or a screened-in area, catnip, and many other activities.
One of my favorite examples is a cat I worked with that was at risk for euthanasia at one of the shelters I consult with. She really enjoyed sitting on people’s laps, and started to dig her claws in and bite if the person tried to remove her. Volunteers and staff stopped wanting to go in her kennel; therefore she lost the opportunity to engage in her favorite activity and started to become stressed and respond aggressively by scratching anytime anyone entered her kennel. When I was asked to help, I decided to try using lap time as the reinforcer for sitting on the floor at the person’s feet while waiting for an invitation to jump up.
I dressed in thick pants to reduce damage from any potential clawing, entered the kennel, stood until Miss Kitty either sat or had all four paws on the floor. Then I began to sit on the bench. If I saw her start to jump up, I stood or blocked my lap with my arms and body. When she started to realize her behavior was making the lap “go away,” she started to experiment with her behavior. As soon as I saw a change towards sitting or just standing with four paws on the floor and giving me attention, I tried giving her some treats on the floor, but she wouldn’t eat them. Then I invited her to jump on my lap by opening up the access and patting my lap. She jumped up and lay in my lap, but I gave her no other attention. Sitting in a lap was very reinforcing and adding attention would only increase its value, which was not the goal at that moment. I then leaned over and dropped some treats on the floor, which she did not pursue. So I scrunched my body up so that she had to move off, and dropped some treats again as soon as she got her paws on the floor. She looked at my lap, which I had kept closed off, then ate her treats. When she sat again, I invited her up on my lap. Then when I dropped a treat on the floor, she immediately jumped off, ate it and sat waiting to be invited back up.
I put “off” and “lap” on cue from various locations, mixed it up with some other fun behaviors and taught her handlers how to use it appropriately.
The entire session lasted approximately 15 minutes, the process was easy to teach to the handlers after I got it started, and I believe it saved that cat’s life. You can see a mixture of operant and respondent training techniques, environmental management, consequence access and relationship building play important roles in a successful behavior modification outcome.
If the cat is not choosing to engage with training, the problem could be the delivery of the reinforcer, rather than the reinforcer itself. Here Little Cat is turning her head away from the treat and you might assume she doesn’t like that reinforcer or isn’t motivated to train, but the problem is actually with the delivery method.
LC prefers to have the treat placed in front of her rather than handed to her mouth. Experiment with different methods to see what appeals to your learner. Your cat might like to catch a treat in her paws, lick a soft food from a spoon but not a squeeze bag, eat a treat held between your fingertips but not from your palm, or some other particularly pleasing technique. Some cats have a preference as to what they will or won’t eat a food reinforcer off of. For example, a cat might not eat food from a thick carpet or from a small bowl that squishes their whiskers. This video is a neat example of the different delivery preferences of three lions at Bush Gardens in Tampa. The trainer is throwing the meatballs to each lion but you can see the male prefers to catch it in his mouth while adding his own signature with a paw assist, one female lion prefers to let it hit the ground and the other female prefers to catch it in her mouth.
Lions stationing. Video with thanks to Irith Bloom.
Use your reinforcer and delivery method to further your training goals. In these videos, you can see how similar deliveries—placing the treat on a colorful patterned rug—work against the goal in one session and for the goal in the other. In the session with Zak, the partially-blind senior black-and-white cat, this placement makes it more difficult for him to perform the target behavior of going to his round mat.
That will slow down the training process and could make some cats very frustrated. In the other video with Jazzy Cat, it is also a challenge for her to find the treat but that is actually the goal of the session! I want her to exercise her nose and burn some energy searching for her snack.
Don’t ruin your work
One of the most common training failures I see is when trainers push too hard, giving learners a negative experience that makes them decide it isn’t fun to play the game anymore. Sometimes the trainer is trying to rush the process, but often without realizing it. It is vital to let the learner have choices to engage or not, with no negative repercussions for choosing to leave the session. In this video, you can see that I always allow LC to choose to back out if she wants; I don’t push her in and I leave the door open even after she is fully inside. You can also see that I reinforce Jazzy Cat for being relaxed in her carrier, which is a great way to work with multiple cats.
Some cats may be forgiving of this pressure, but many aren’t. Remember that your penultimate goal is the immediate behavior you are working on, but the pinnacle achievement is to make training an experience that your learner wants to engage in. Get some experience with as many different cats as you can because practice is your friend. So get out, and get training!
The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis
Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats by Karen Overall
Jacqueline Munera is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant promoting positive perceptions about cats! She’s so passionate about this mission that she named her business Positive Cattitudes and spends her time dispelling the myth that cats can’t be trained.