The Guide to Training Your Cat

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Sit. Stay. Come. Do these sound like commands you would only give to a dog? Well, if you are a cat owner who thinks that cats can’t be trained to respond to commands the same way that dogs do, you’re in for a surprise. Basic training for cats involves obedience training just as it does for dogs.

Cats often do not respond to commands unless they want to, so the real trick is making your cat want to do what you want. All animals, including humans, are conditioned to respond to cues in their environments. Conditioning is already at work in your home. Your cat has probably already learned to associate mealtimes with certain sounds and your behavior prior to feeding time. She has probably learned that when she hears you flip the top of a cat food can or shake a container of treats it’s time to come running. Your cat knows that she will be rewarded with food when she hears these sounds. When you train your cat, you can reinforce any specific behavior with a food reward, preceding the reward with a sound that your cat will associate with an action to be taken.

Litter Training Your Cat

Since most cats prefer to eliminate in private, put litter boxes in places that are easily accessible but away from heavy foot traffic. Recesses or the corners of rooms are suitable locations. Position the litter boxes away from your cat’s feeding or bedding area to avoid sending mixed signals.

Cats generally are fastidious creatures that groom themselves meticulously and bury their bodily waste. Show your kitten a litter box, demonstrate how to scratch in the litter, and she’ll generally get the picture pretty fast.

You can be sure that your cat prefers his or her litter box to be clean and fresh. Scoopable litters are preferred by most cats. Both urine and feces should be scooped from the litter box daily and the entire litter box contents should be changed periodically. Clean the box with warm, soapy water and rinse it thoroughly. A litter box liner may help reduce cleaning time but may deter some cats from using the box.

There are a variety of litter materials available, including clay litters and those made from plant materials. Some cats will refuse to use certain litter material while others have different preferences for urination and defecation. Find out what works best for your cat.

Litter box avoidance and inappropriate elimination (urinating outside the litter box) are the most frequent and irritating disagreements humans have with their kitties.

Inappropriate urination and defecation may mean that the litter box facilities are sub par, that there’s a medical problem or, in the case of marking behavior, that your cat is trying to signal something.

Cats use elimination of urine (and sometimes feces) for communication – a kind of pee-mail, if you will. That can be a sign that something is wrong. In the latter situation, your kitty is not being mean or spiteful. She’s got a problem and you’ll have to figure out what it is if you want it to go away.

Punishing your cat for inappropriate elimination will not solve the problem. It will only teach her to fear and avoid you, and eliminate when you’re not around. In fact, it can actually make the problem worse, since inappropriate elimination is often caused by stress, and punishment will only add to her stress level.

Clicker Training Your Cat

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.

Timing of rewards is critical. If a cat stops meowing for 3 seconds and you have to reach into your pocket for a food treat and then walk toward the cat to deliver it, the moment may have passed. Yet it is difficult to have primary rewards (food, water, toys) handy at all times so how can this best be managed?

The answer is using a “secondary reinforcer,” like praise or a neutral cue that signals that the primary reinforcer is due. For humans, money is a secondary reinforcer. It has little or no intrinsic value but signals to the recipient that they have performed well and that the real reward (what the money buys) will be forthcoming. In time, money alone reinforces the behavior (work) but it must retain its implied value or its attraction will eventually be lost (as in times of great inflation). In animal training, whistles and clicks have been used as secondary reinforcers, though you can also use your voice.


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