What are the benefits of training your cat? Yes, it’s pretty cool to be able to ask your cat to jump over obstacles and through hoops (cat agility!) but training also opens a line of communication between you and your cat. Animal training utilizes principles of psychology to create a common language between the human and animal.
If we know the cat salivates when food is presented (the food elicits an involuntary response in the cat) we can pair this instinctive response with an initially neutral signal- such as a click! (classical conditioning). When we pair the click with the food repeatedly the click is associated with the presentation of food and takes on meaning for the animal. “Oh, when I get a click- I get a treat!” You can use this new form of communication to let your cat know which behaviors you like and want them to keep doing. Your animal will connect the click with their behavior and will choose to engage in those behaviors more frequently (operant conditioning). “I see… they like it when I sit. Let me sit again and see if I get a treat!”
As animals undergo more training, they often learn they will get rewarded for new behaviors and start to display unexpected, novel behaviors. “Lets see if I get a treat for standing on my back legs! Yup!” The cat gets to be creative and find new ways to interact with you and earn rewards.
Sometimes your cat will even “ask” for training sessions. My cat Cecilia (started training when she was 7 years old) has a very specific stance she gets in when she is ready to do a training session. She looks me in the eyes, sits completely upright and lifts her right paw (probably a superstitious behavior) as if to say “I’m ready to earn some treats!”
There are multiple ways training can benefit you and your cat:
- A common language formed between you and your cat. You can ask your cat to do behaviors instead of forcing them. For example, if you need your cat to leave the room you can ask them to go to their “mat” in the other room, instead of physically picking them up and moving them.
- Serves as an outlet for excess energy, which could alleviate some behavior problems and keep your cat in shape!
- Allows the cat to use their brain. The cat makes the choice to engage in behaviors during training sessions. Cats will often display unexpected behaviors- trying something new to earn a reward. This allows your cat to think and problem solve, which may aid their mental health.
Once you have loaded the clicker using the appropriate reinforcer it’s time to start training! The first step is to decide what behavior you want to train. Teaching “sit” is a great place to start since your cat already commonly engages in this behavior and it will be an easy one to catch.
The key is to not force your cat to do the behavior, but to catch the cat when it does do the behavior. Watch this video of me training sit. Note that I am marking the sit behavior using the clicker when the behavior is occurring. It is important not to click too soon or too late but precisely when the cat engages in the behavior. This will mark which behavior you like and let the cat know that when it engages in that behavior it will get a reward shortly after.
The more sit-> click+reward pairings you do the faster the cat will pick up on the behavior you like. Use small sized reinforcers (if using food use small pieces, if using play/attention use short bouts) so the cat does not become satiated on the reward and you are able to do more pairings in a session. Additionally, keep the first training sessions short (~5 min per session). Try using play to get the cat to stand (increasing the likelihood they will sit again) or use a lure to guide the animal to the desired behavior.
Once the cat connects that you like the sit behavior, and is sitting reliably the next step is to add in a cue (hand or vocal signal) to indicate to the cat when you would like them to sit. But, don’t add this just yet! The cat must already be reliably engaging in the behavior before you add the cue, and doing this prematurely can actually confuse them. Watch for the next blog post about when and how to add in the cue!