Cats! We love our cats, but rarely try to train them. There's a pervasive myth that cats cannot be trained, but of course, they can. This myth is likely due, at least in part, to attempts at training with coercive methods. Most creatures respond poorly to these techniques and cats are no exception. However, any animal can be trained if you have and control effective reinforcers, and if you have an understanding of learning theory.
In this class we will work to engage our cats in pleasant interactions with us, develop ways to enrich their day to day lives, and make the training process fun and enjoyable for them. We will approach our training with respect for the nature of cats as highly thoughtul and intelligent creatures.
Here's a trailer for the class:
And here's a little work with paw targeting:
Next session starts: August 1, 2018Registration starts: July 22, 2018Registration ends: August 15, 2018
Registration will begin at 9:30am PDT.
For answers to commonly asked questions see our FAQ page.
Enrollment limits: Gold: 12 students, Silver: 25 students, Bronze: unlimited.
If you are interested in a bronze level subscription, you can sign up at any time during the registration period.
In this course we will address 4 basic aspects of feline behavior and training:
1) toy play, food play, enrichment, and environmental management,
2) recalls & impulse control, including stationary behaviors,
3) cooperative care & husbandry, including crating,
4) basic behaviors & fancy tricks
Please note: Serious behavior modification & problem solving are beyond the scope of this basic foundation level course. However, the content areas we address are proactive and, as a side effect, may improve some behavioral issues.
Pre-class Lecture: Everyone Knows You Can’t Train a Cat!
Everybody knows that cats aren’t trainable, right? Everybody also knows that cats are geniuses at getting what they want. This is a perfect example of the difference between intelligent and trainable. Intelligent animals figure things out, they solve problems, and they find the easiest possible way to get the best outcome. Trainable animals are willing and eager learners. While these things are NOT mutually exclusive, intelligent animals can present challenges in training. Often, what they end up learning is not what we intended to teach. Instead, they may well figure out an easier way to get what they want. Or they may make leaps ahead in their learning and we’re not prepared.
However, every animal is trainable. It’s a matter of having reinforcers that are valuable, controlling and using them wisely, and setting up training sessions so that there is early and consistent success.
People tend to treat cats very differently than dogs. We talk about the independent nature of cats, and we tend to ignore them rather than encourage more interaction. Whenever they do something we don’t like or don’t know how to address we just throw up our hands and say “of course, that’s how cats are”. Interestingly, when people talk about cats that they have had a special relationship with they often say “he was just like a dog”. I think that’s very interesting. We equate dogs with loving relationships and cats with cohabitation, sort of like incompatible but not hostile roommates. I often wonder how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, cats aren’t dogs. They are quite different, by nature, in many important ways. Our goal is not to erase their “cat-ness” and make them more canine. Our goal is to enrich their lives with interesting mental and physical activity and improve our relationships with them.
Plus, your friends and family will be absolutely amazed when you show off your cat’s trained behaviors, because of course, everyone knows that cats can’t be trained.
Pre-class exercise: Identifying food reinforcers & practicing reinforcer delivery
In order to train your cat you MUST be able to identify and effectively control food reinforcers. Food is our primary source of power in training and we use it liberally. If you don’t have food reinforcers that work regularly then you will not make much progress in this class. So it pays to take some time to identify foods that will be useful for training.
Many people free feed their cats; leaving food available at all times. This will work against us if we are relying on food to motivate our cats to work with us. During this course it would be best to avoid free feeding and use food as a training tool. It’s fine to continue to provide a small portion of your cat’s food in the usual manner. However, save the majority of it for training and enrichment activities. In the wild cats work very hard for their food, so it’s not a hardship for them to have to put forth a bit of effort. In fact, they tend to really enjoy their training time and the food that comes along with it. Don’t think of it as taking away their meals; think of it as adding some much needed mental and physical activity to their days.
What will you use as food reinforcers? Now is the time to start testing out a variety of options to identify 3 or 4 that seem to work well for your cat. Some cats, like some dogs, are happy to work for their usual meals. Others, however, will be much more discerning and require higher value and/or variety in their food reinforcers. Try as many different foods as you can and see what your cat seems to prefer. Luckily for me, Trick works well for kibble. I buy the tiniest size that I can so I can get in plenty of training repetitions for his normal amount of food. Something he really adores is squeeze cheese right out of the can, so I often use that for grooming and husbandry.
How will you provide food to your cat? There are a couple of options. If your cat has good bite inhibition you can hand his small pieces of food. If he has a tendency to grab at your fingers you might try putting the food in your flat open palm. If you still find your cat is still grabby you can use some tweezers to give individual pieces of food. Of course, you can also simply drop the treat on the floor. This works just fine in most cases. If you are using soft food you can provide it on a spoon. Or, if you are using very soft food you can present it in a syringe.
Keep in mind that the longer your cat has been eating for free the more foreign the idea of working to obtain food will be to him. It may take a while for him to grasp the general idea of working to earn what has typically been easily and readily available. Make it very easy for him to find ways to get his food at first. Systematically increase the difficulty and complexity of obtaining food over time.
There is a concept in psychology called "contrafreeloading" that is very interesting. Animals that contrafreeload actually prefer food they work for to food that they get for free. Many animals will ignore the readily available free food and show a preference for working to earn the same type of food. One possible explanation for this is that the activity of training adds to the value of the food reinforcer. It is possible that the opportunity for enjoyable activity combines with the enjoyment of food and enhances the value of the reinforcer. In any case, this is good news for us!
Treat toss on floor "get it!":
Baby food syringe:
Here's a link to the syringes I use:
Remote reinforcement devices:
The two most common remote reinforcement devices are the Treat & Train and the Pet Tutor. Both allow you the ability to provide reinforcement at a distance. This new method of food delivery can be interesting in itself. In addition, you can teach some fun behaviors with these types of devices.
*While you are waiting for class to begin identify at least 3 food reinforcers that you can use in training. In addition, practice different methods of providing those reinforcers to determine what will work best for you and your cat.