Training from scratch: best behavior
Whether you are hoping to address specific behavioral concerns or open up a world of tricks and enrichment, the training tools that you use matter. As we learned in the first part of our training series, ‘bad’ or unwanted behavior can often be stopped by encouraging behavior that we like better. A thoughtful approach to positive reinforcement training strengthens the bond that you have with your cat while teaching them how to be on their best behavior.
Help your cat make good choices.
Think about what behavior you want from your kitty and how you can set them up for success. If the goal is to get rid of unwanted behavior and increase wanted behavior, make sure that the wanted behavior is easier to do. This may mean adding conveniently located litter boxes for a cat who would rather pee on the floor than travel all of the way through the hall, past the dog, around the corner, over the baby gate, and down the stairs to use the basement box. Setting up for scratching success includes offering choice and considering your cat’s current preferences. For trick training, use a distraction-free environment that allows your kitty to keep their eyes on the prize.
Keep their options open.
Think about any unwanted behaviors. What sorts of kitty needs or wants are being met by them? As chaotic as kittens can seem, there is a reason behind every action. They might feel the urge to let out excess energy, get to a valuable resource, or communicate the only way they know how. Consider how those needs could be satisfied in a different way. What trainable behavior could help redirect their energy and attention? Can we give them a more pleasant way to ask for what they want? Knowing what alternate behaviors to nurture can take brainstorming; come up with a few fun options to keep training flexible.
Solo Activity Time
Establish a routine of solo play. Provide a fresh food toy as you get ready for bed to keep kitty occupied while you get some much deserved rest.
Set up a warm and cozy relaxation station near your computer and use "go to mat" training to make it more rewarding than your keyboard.
Give your cat something they can really sink their teeth into, make it exciting with prey-like movement. Reward them when they go back for more.
When you catch unwanted scratching, ask for a "sit" to stop them and use target training to guide your cat to the right scratching spot.
Come and Go
To keep your kitty from exploring the great outdoors without permission, teach them to come when called or "go to mat" when the door needs to be opened.
Watching You Poop
One of the perks of pets is never having to use the bathroom alone! But if you'd rather not have a bathroom buddy, try mat training or solo activity time.
Get the behavior you want.
Once you have a better behavior in mind, there are several ways to encourage your cat to put it in practice. If it is something that your cat already does on their own, catch them in the act. If it is something they know how to do but you need them to do it in a different way, guide them by luring them. You can also build behavior from scratch through a process called shaping. Each of these approaches involves getting your kitty on board with the training plan, so that they are an enthusiastic participant.
Start simple by catching natural behaviors.
We introduced the idea of capturing behavior in the first part of our training series, using sitting as an example. By rewarding your cat for doing something they already know how to do, you make it more likely that they will do it again. Using a “marker” makes this process even easier. A marker is something noticeable that highlights a desired behavior, telling your cat the instant they have done something you like. To send the right message it must be followed immediately by a reward. Well timed praise can work as a marker, but upgrading to a training tool known as a clicker improves your precision and efficiency.
Clickers make a sharp and consistent sound. That sound grabs attention and allows for strong associations to be made. Like the music of an ice cream truck or the pop-top of a can of cat food, the noise it makes becomes a powerful predictor of good things. Praise might be less consistent; think of how many times and ways you say “good” or “yes” throughout the day, often with no treats involved. Timing and precision are important when it comes to clear communication. Without them, we may capture the wrong behavior or none at all.
It may help to think of a clicker like a camera’s shutter button. Take a picture of the behavior that you want in order to keep it. You can use a clicker to reinforce any desired behavior that you catch in time, from rewarding use of scratching posts and litter boxes, to promoting cute chirps and making biscuits. It can even help with shaping complex behaviors or those that we have specifically encouraged.
Encourage participation by leading, not forcing.
With the right motivation, we can lure cats into performing all sorts of handy behaviors. Tempting them with treats or toys lets us change their position without invading their personal space. This video from Cat School – Clicker Training For Cats shows how a food lure can be used in mat training. Cat School is an excellent resource for anyone looking for comprehensive training support.
Treats are helpful not just in calling your cat to you, but in increasing distance with a simple toss. This can be used to “reset” positions so that physical tricks like sitting can be repeated again and again. This kind of repetition is important for learning; practice makes perfect! It is important to remember that marking and rewarding the behavior is just as important as luring your kitty into performing it in the first place. The goal is to teach them exactly what you want them to do so they eventually do it without having to be lured each time.
Shape the behavior you want with baby steps.
When luring alone is not enough, break down complex behaviors into bite-sized parts that can each be accomplished with luring or spontaneous action. Cats will often investigate something new by sniffing or touching it, which can then be rewarded to encourage even more contact. Items can be arranged and rearranged to guide gradual changes.
It would never occur to your cat to leap through your arms without you taking the time to shape the behavior, as this video demonstrates. Slow and steady wins the race. Make sure that your cat can confidently perform each baby-step before prompting them to move on to the next one.
If your cat gets lost along the way or seems confused, backtrack to where they were succeeding before trying to advance again. Cat School’s YouTube Channel has a ton of great guides to shaping complex tasks and tricks. Watching the evolution of these training sessions helps us to think in small steps and picture what progress can look like. Take the time to communicate effectively to set your kitty up for success.
Communicate with specific cues.
Once they are doing offering the desired behavior reliably, give them a signal right before you expect the behavior or as they are going to do it and only reward when it follows the signal. You can use a word or a gesture, something that will be easy to recognize and respond to. Your cat needs to volunteer the behavior frequently or perform it consistently enough in a training setting that when we introduce this cue, it becomes obvious that this signal is what makes the difference between treat or no treat. Remember that it is your job to communication clearly; the signal does not have meaning until the kitty is able to make the mental connection. If you ask without taking the time to form a strong association, the cue is meaningless.
If your kitty doesn’t seem to get the message even after being told a thousand times, it is not them who is the slow learner! As the humans in the room, we have to switch up how we teach to meet the needs of the learner.
While it can feel like dogs have a monopoly on training resources, positive reinforcement training doesn’t discriminate. The fundamentals of training are true whether you are working with a tiny tabby or an enormous elephant. Success comes down to teamwork and solid communication. Look beyond “feline friendly” training to borrow new ideas and tweak them to suit your cat’s learning needs. Choose a softer sounding clicker for sensitive kitty ears. Offer scratching breaks to release frustration after a tough session. Try a table or another platform to address height challenges.
Remember that we build stronger relationships and solve problems more effectively by showing the way rather than punishing someone who is lost. Work together with your kitty to find creative solutions, learn impressive tricks, and create harmony in your home.
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 enrolling your kitty in Cat School or 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.