Training from scratch: fundamentals

Training gives you an opportunity to bond with your cat, helping you to communicate. This empowers you to pick the behaviors that you want and replace the behaviors that you don’t. Team effort comes with the added bonus of mental stimulation for both you and your kitty. Enrich your friendship, meeting both of your needs and picking up a few fun tricks along the way. Get started with the basic fundamentals of training your cat from scratch.

The tools that you use matter.

Whether you need to tackle a problem behavior or are looking to explore a world of tricks and fun, training tools can make or break the relationship that you have with your cat. Look for resources and trainers that use positive reinforcement – a tool that makes good behavior happen more often by giving rewards, such as food. Cats learn best with methods that strengthens the human-animal bond, while giving them a clear path to success. Training is about using communication skills to get past a language barrier. What we intend to say is less important than what is heard. Keep this in mind when looking at training advice.

Don't take our word for it, ask the pet.

The next time that you watch an animal training video online, play it on mute first. Give the pet the first chance to tell you what is happening. Watch their body language to see how they react to the training. Then, replay the video with the sound on. What kind of conversation do you see? Is this a team effort with enthusiasm on both sides? If the conversation seems one sided, be very thoughtful about what lessons you take away from that video. Be especially alert for those that set pets up to fail, putting them in a situation to be punished.

Beware the pitfalls of punishment.

Methods that rely on punishment, corrections, or discipline can cause fear of people or handling. They also risk teaching your cat that they can do whatever they want, as long as you do not find out. This defeats the purpose of training and can harm the relationship that you have with your cat. If you have used punishment before and regret it, you are not alone. Two wrongs do not make a right, so do not punish yourself for having used punishment! Move forward with techniques that are more fun and more effective. Give your cat the vocabulary to ask for what it wants, with the behaviors that you like. Carry on a conversation that leaves you both feeling connected and content.

Translation Station

See each situation from a kitty perspective by hovering/clicking the box.

Spray Bottle

A quick squirt of water sends the message...

Humans are rude!

When the human saw me, I got squirted! I better try that behavior again when they aren't around to interrupt me.

Spanking

A little swat on the bottom says...

Humans get physical!

Those hands aren't afraid to hit, so I better be careful about how close I let them get.

Yelling

More volume means...

Humans are loud.

But I still have no idea what I did wrong or what my human expects from me.

Sticky Tape

Putting tape on one scratching spot suggests...

This spot is out of order.

Time to find a new spot. Thankfully the rest of the couch still seems to be prime for scratching.

Penny Can Shake

Rattling a can of coins announces...

This is a danger zone.

AHH! It is hard to learn when an alarm goes off, my focus on is getting away instead of what I can do better.

Pet Shaming

Posting about the behavior online announces...

???

I'm a cat, so I didn't see the shade you threw on instagram. But maybe your followers will offer you some better training advice??

Fill your toolbox with effective options.

When choosing your tools, put together a matching set that lets you build a relationship and create a strong foundation for communication. There are many humane and effective ways to train your cat, powered by what makes them tick. We can boost confidence, improve comfort, set clear expectations, channel healthy behavior, and of course have fun! The pitfalls of punishment make corrections and discipline a bad fit for this awesome collection of options. Sticking with the fundamentals, we will be introducing three tools that build up to positive associations.

  • Desensitization
  • Counter conditioning
  • Positive Reinforcement
Set the mood with desensitization and counter conditioning.

A cozy mood makes home nail care easier for everyone. A confident mood helps reassure your kitty that they do not need to defend themselves with tooth and nail. Desensitization and counter conditioning are tools that can be used to treat fear associated with people, things, or experiences. They are two great things that go great together. While each works in its own way, their combined power can give better results more quickly.

Desensitization works very gradually, at a speed set by the pet. Itty bitty exposures to a source of fear reduce the response to that particular scary thing over time. It is the carefully performed science way of “getting used to it,” through baby steps. Start with a very low level of the scary thing, so low that there will be no fear reaction. Over a series of short sessions, take care to increase exposure so slowly that there is still no reaction. We can increase by moving the scary thing closer or by making it more intense, not both at once. If we move too quickly, all of our progress may be lost. It is important that we are patient and keep sessions comfortable. Again, the pace is set by the pet. Some cats might learn very quickly that their scary thing wasn’t so scary after all, others will need more time or are better off with the combo pack of desensitization plus counter conditioning.

Counter conditioning changes the emotion that is associated with something. By pairing exposure to the scary thing with food or play, we can make a positive association. This is repeated again and again in order to establish a link and solidify that positive emotional connection. The scary thing and reward must be timed well to be effective; gaps make it difficult to make strong links. Just after the scary thing is noticed, the treat or toy should be delivered. This makes the scary thing a sign that good things are coming, instead of the other way around. Rewards must be valuable enough that the pet does not ignore them, but not so valuable that the pet completely ignores the scary thing. It is hard to make a connection between two things when only one is in focus. Existing anxiety can make it difficult to find a reward that strikes that perfect balance with the scary thing at full force. By incorporating desensitization, we can adjust each plan for each pet. Working at their pace, with their motivators, makes progress. Visit our nail care series to see the principles of desensitization and counter conditioning in action.

Choose winning behaviors and stop choosing losers.

As mentioned, positive reinforcement is a tool that increases a behavior by pairing it with something nice. We make it clear that good work comes with good pay. As a tool in our toolbox, it can get a little confused with counter conditioning, but a basic difference is that there needs to be some sort of behavior happening for there to be reinforcement involved. Counter conditioning focuses on feeling, positive reinforcement focuses on doing. Instead of pairing a reward with a scary thing, we pair a reward with an action that we would like to see again. Unfortunately, sometimes rewards are matched up with an action that we do not actually want to see again. That is why unwanted behavior continues. By looking critically at our cat’s behavior and what reinforcement can be added, or changed, we can pick out the behaviors that we want.

Choose a behavior that your cat already knows and does on their own, like sitting. Teaching them to sit when asked comes with a few perks. It lets you focus on mastering reinforcement, since the basic behavior already exists. It gives your kitty a way to ask politely, by teaching them that this is a behavior that you like. It can also counteract bad manners, like painful leg climbing, by putting paws on the floor. When you get started, wait for them to sit without asking them to. Simply give them a treat each time their bottom hits the floor. This encourages them to offer the behavior, hoping that you will give them more. Once they are offering you frequent sits, give your chosen cue before you expect them to sit and only reward sits that are asked for. The goal is to catch them and say the cue before they do what they were going to do anyway. Try not to ask repeatedly or it might be ignored as background noise. Ignore sits that were not asked for to teach them the routine of ask, then behavior, and then treat.

Scratching is an example of a behavior that is naturally reinforcing. It is rewarding to scratch because it feels so darn good. It’s good exercise. It meets territorial needs. It does so many things. We do not need to positively reinforce scratching to make it happen, but we can positively reinforce scratching to aim it in the right direction. Each time your cat scratches, their body and brain give them a little payout of reinforcement. When they scratch what you want them to, add a bonus to that payout. Their brain and body will still pay them for scratching other targets, but they will learn that scratching what you want them to is more rewarding and a better use of their time.

Translation Station

See each situation from a kitty perspective by hovering/clicking the box.

Desensitize

When big scares are made to be small and easy...

I could get used to this!

By taking baby steps, I can learn to tolerate what used to be too much for me.

Counter Condition

When stress comes with something good...

I can see the bright side!

Giving me something to look forward to helps change my mind about things I didn't like.

Positive Reinforcement

When a good job comes with good pay...

I will keep up the good work!

Now that I know how to earn, I can focus my energy on doing the right things.

Put your tools to good use.

Consider what your goals are. The challenge of destructive scratching can be approached in multiple ways, even combining strategies for a faster fix. Do you want to start with introducing low stress nail trims using desensitization and counter conditioning? Or would you rather encourage your kitty to scratch on target using positive reinforcement? Why not both? Each helps the situation and having two goals can relieve frustration. If you are struggling with one task, take a break by working on the other. Before you circle back to the first again, look at your training plan with fresh eyes. Which tools fit this challenge? How can we give our tools a power boost?

Charge your tools with the right motivation.

Training takes teamwork. When the whole team is on board with the plan, the game is much more fun and functional. Cat owners are in luck, they have a cat behavior expert right in their own home! Find out what motivates your cat by asking them what they like. Our most powerful tools require something that motivates your cat, a reliable reward. This often means using food, but that is not always the case. Some cats have medical issues that make offering snacks challenging, others are simply not interested enough.

Think about what motivates your cat and how you can incorporate their favorite things into the lesson plan. If your cat says no to snacks, they might like a good brushing or a quick play session when it is reward time. Offer them a variety of options to choose from during downtime, letting them pick a few of their favorite things. Keep in mind that moods and preferences change, so what works one day may not the next. Let your kitty be your guide, remember that open communication is the key to teamwork and training. 

Feeling overwhelmed?

Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are many feline behavior professionals who are more than happy to help you get started. Consider scheduling a behavior consultation to talk about your individual cat’s needs and how to meet them within your home. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants is an excellent resource for finding someone who can support you and your kitty’s training plan.