feline training for a happier life

The cat is unlikely to be the first animal one thinks of when thinking of animal training. Despite helping humans through their ability to rodent catch, the cat has never been selected for as a working animal, perhaps partly due to the belief that the cat was an independent and solitary animal. This is in direct contrast to the domestic dog which we have trained for a number of tasks including retrieving, herding and scent discrimination, to name just a few.

Using food as a lure you can train your cat to put his head into his collar, resulting in the cat having positive associations with wearing a collar

However, the cat holds as much ability to be trained as many other species since it learns utilising the same principles of learning theory as other species. In fact, it is likely that we train our cats subconsciously all the time. For example, the cat may learn to sit by the back door and miaow because when it does this behaviour, we open the back door to let it out. We positively reinforce this behaviour with the reinforcement of outdoor access which the cat desires, thus making the actions of sitting by the door and miaowing more likely to occur again. Subconsciously we are shaping our cats behaviour, although we often think our cat is training us!

However, why might we want to train our cats on a more formal level?

  • Training through positive reinforcement can be a form of mental and physical stimulation and thus a form of environmental enrichment
  • Training can strengthen the bond between care-giver and cat
  • Training can allow management tasks to occur in a more welfare-positive manner.

All training tasks described in this talk will be based around clicker training: a method of training which utilises the principles of both classical and operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning. The first step is to associate the sound of the clicker (emitted from a small plastic box when pressed with the thumb) with something positive, most usually a small piece of high value food such as a cat treat or small piece of meat or cheese. This is carried out by clicking once (secondary reinforcer) and following this with presentation of the food reward (primary reinforcer). This process is repeated several times until the cat is observed exhibiting signs of anticipation for the food reward before it is actually presented, eg, head orientation towards you. This part is known as classical conditioning.

At this stage, training a simple task can commence. To train a task using clicker training, we use the process of operant conditioning where a positive reinforcer (in this case click and treat) is given for behaviour that you wish to be repeated. Behaviour you do not wish to be repeated is ignored. Small successive approximations of the desired behaviour are reinforced.

Thus a task that may appear fairly complex is broken down in to smaller achievable steps. For example, to train a cat to lift a paw, the first step would be to reinforce a sit and then any small movement of the paw building up to small lifts before the final full paw lift. However, if the cat volunteered the full paw lift at any stage, this would be automatically reinforced. As behaviours that approximate the final behaviour more closely are offered, those earlier approximations are no longer reinforced to encourage behaviour closer to the final desired behaviour. This process is known as shaping. Lures are also often used in training and can be described as primary reinforcers (ie, a toy or food) which are placed strategically to attract an animal to an area or piece of apparatus or to move in a certain way (eg, to turn a certain direction). Throughout the talk, reference will be made to both lures and clicker training. For a more detailed description of these principles, see McGreevy & Boakes (2007) and for how they are utilised through clicker training see Pryor (2004).

Training as a form of environmental enrichment
Training as a form of environmental enrichment is particularly important for cats who have no or limited outdoor access. The outdoor environment is constantly changing and the cat has to learn to adapt to this. In contrast the indoor environment is much more static and opportunity to problem solve is more limited. Introducing training tasks provides new behavioural opportunities as well as dedicated positive time with an owner. The cat has to work for its food (as food treats are often used as the positive reinforcer) both physically and cognitively as would be the case in a free-ranging cat. Clicker training for fun tasks can provide an outlet for play for young cats and kittens while stimulating play and exploration in the older cat who may have become less interested in the environment. Simple training tasks that encourage both mental and physical stimulation include:

  • target training where the cat is trained to follow a target. Examples of training cat agility through the use of lures will be shown.
  • giving a paw and begging
  • chase, pick up and retrieve a toy
  • roll over

Training to strengthen the bond between caregiver and cat
It is well known that behavioural problems can weaken the bond between owner and cat. Training has a certain place within behaviour modification programs for certain behavioural problems. For example, cats that scratch the furniture can be trained to scratch on purpose built scratching posts. Excessive vocalisations are often a common complaint by owners of their cats, particularly by those who own the more vocal breeds such as Siamese and Burmese. Clicker training can be used to encourage the cat to be quieter.

In addition, training can be used to help boost confidence in nervous cats and is thus particularly important for those working in the rescue environment where many nervous cats with unknown histories exist. Clicker training can be used to encourage the cats to feel more secure and confident around humans. For cats that are unsure of being handled, training can help overcome any fears or anxieties.

Training tasks to improve welfare related to management
In a cat’s everyday life it often has to be handled, for example, to be placed in a cat carrier, to have a physical examination at the vets or to be groomed. For many cats, this is not a problem, however, for those who are anxious or fearful of being handled this can be problematic. Using the principles already described, cats can be taught to enter the cat carrier without any physical handling and to tolerate handling, restraint and grooming. The importance of making such tasks as stress free as possible for the cat is imperative for its welfare both in the short and longer term.

Training cats through positive reinforcement can be a rewarding experience for both owner and cat and can provide physical and mental stimulation, creating better management practices as well as improving the caregiver-cat bond and preventing and/or helping the alleviation of certain behavioural problems.

For the clicker training videos which accompany this article, click here

McGreevy, P & Boakes, R Carrots and sticks: Principles of Animal Training. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Pryor, K (2004) Clicker training for cats. Ringpress Books, Surrey.

©This information sheet is produced by the Feline Advisory Bureau