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Feline Training and Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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It is a widely accepted notion that it is impossible to train cats. But, then again, why would you want to? Most people acquire a cat because they view her as a relatively low maintenance, relatively independent pet that they can interact with when they want or leave to her own devices and desires.

To some extent, they're right. Cats do tend to be more independent than dogs and some were literally born to walk by themselves. Their temperaments vary from self-absorbed to curious, from social to anti-social, and from stable to highly volatile. The average slightly inquisitive, reasonably friendly and tolerant cat is a pet that, like Victorian children, tends to be seen but not heard.

At either end of the behavioral spectrum, however, are cats that keep to themselves and react negatively to attempts to force them out of their shell and demanding in-your-face cats that won't take no for an answer. Although it is possible to cater to shy cats, coexist with the middle-of-the-road variety, and work around the more demanding types, such strategizing isn't necessarily the way that things have to be.

Training cats is eminently possible and can help to improve the quality of life for both cat and owner. It has been said that if a cat is trained to perform one new trick per month, the likelihood of behavior problems is substantially reduced. But how do you train a cat?

Not with a collar and lead, that's for sure. And punishment doesn't work well with cats, either. So what does that leave? The only remaining strategy is to employ positive reinforcement to coax the cat to perform the behaviors that you want.

Professional cat trainers have known this for years and their main training tools are delicious cat food and a spoon with a clicker attached to the handle. The clicker, itself, is not absolutely vital but, when clicked, serves to illustrate a precise point in time that the cat has performed a desirable behavior. During the time it takes to say, "Well done, good cat," the cat may have performed several different behaviors following the one desired.

The click, however, is precise and serves as an audible mark that a preferred behavior has been successfully completed. Training with a clicker produces an instant reward that signals the imminent arrival of the real reward. This methodology is easy for most owners to grasp and produces results quickly. Using click and treat training, as it is called, the "trainer" goes with the flow of nature and rewards behaviors that the cat naturally performs, initially at least. The behavior can then be progressively "shaped" toward a more desirable form.

Using clicker training, it is extremely easy to teach a cat to sit or lie down, or to jump up or down from a surface. With patience, cats can be trained to run through tubes and boxes, to leap from place to place, and even to complete complicated behavioral chains of activities.

A strange thing happens when you train your cat. Instead of the two of you coming together briefly at feeding time and when the cat presents herself for petting, the whole dynamic relationship changes from cat to owner and owner to cat – and for the better. It's as though a mutual appreciation society emerges from an otherwise perfunctory relationship, and the cat's and owner's lives are both enriched.

Once the positive training interaction has become a regular feature of daily life, all it takes is for the owner to stand up and say, "Wanna have some fun?" and to show the cat the clicker, and the cat will resonate with excitement in anticipation of the impending activities. Interactive training of this type, for just a few minutes a day, will exercise the cat's mind and promote relaxation. It seems that a short period of intense concentration during such training sessions is equivalent, output-wise, to a much longer period of physical activity.

But cats should be aerobically exercised, too. I encourage owners to play with their cats using a feather wand or "pull toy" for at least fifteen minutes a day to discharge pent up predatory drive and keep the cat in good physical condition. A trained and well-exercised cat is a happier and healthier cat than one left to spin her wheels and figure things out by herself. Trained cats have a better interaction with their owners and will have fewer, if any, undesired behavior problems.

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