Webinar! A look inside your cat’s head

A look inside your cat’s head: The science behind your cat and how to strengthen the human-cat bond

Although cats and humans have coexisted for thousands of years, science still has a lot to learn about cat behavior, cognition and the human-cat bond. This talk will cover the current status of several areas of cat social cognition research and discuss ways to utilize this knowledge to improve cat welfare and strengthen the human-cat bond. Learn the social behaviors between cats and the various aspects in the human-cat bond. This webinar will touch on cat training classes and how to open that ever important line of communication. Emphasis will be given to applying our knowledge to increase cat welfare & strengthen the human-cat bond.

KristynHeadshot2_ETrainingSpeaker: Kristyn Vitale Shreve
When:
Live online lecture is scheduled for Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at 8:00-9:30pm EDT (Midnight UTC/GMT)
Cost: $25.00
Click here to register for the lecture! 

Cat Training: When to add a cue

After your chosen behavior has been trained you can add in a cue. This cue can be a word such as “sit!” or can be a hand signal, such as a closed fist. Cues are important because they give you the control to ask your cat to engage in the behavior when you wish. You ask them to sit, and they do so knowing they will receive a reward.

Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for "stand", a hand cue.
Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for “stand”, a hand cue.

It is important not to add the cue too soon, before the animal understands the behavior. This can actually confuse them and make it harder for them to connect the cue to the behavior. For example, what if you were trying to teach someone how to catch a baseball? If the learner does not connect that they are supposed to catch the baseball in their mitt then yelling “catch!” will not help them learn either the behavior or the meaning of the word “catch!”

When a cat has learned a behavior, they will often begin engaging in it when they want a treat. For example, my cat Cecilia is great at standing on her back legs. When we began training the stand behavior she would come into the room and stand up to see if she got a treat. I added the cue only after I was sure Cecilia made the connection between standing and receiving a reward .

The cue becomes an antecedent (or a signal), that indicates to the cat they should engage in the behavior in order to receive a reward.

How would you add a cue? Lets take “Stand” as an example:

  • First present the cue word at the same time as you click. This way the cat associates the word with the behavior you are marking with the click.
    Click!/Say “Stand!” (simultaneously) -> reward
  • Slowly you can present the cue word earlier. Present the cue right as you see the cat about to stand.
    Say “Stand!” (just when they begin to stand)->click (when stands)->reward
  • Continue to move the cue up earlier and earlier, until the cue totally precedes the behavior.
    Say “Stand” when you want them to do so. Cat will then stand, you can then click! -> reward

Scent, security, and stress

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A happy Cecilia!

Does your cat get anxious and hide when people come over? Does your cat pee or scratch on the carpet? These behaviors (if medical issues have been ruled out, always talk to your vet!) may indicate your cat does not feel secure in their environment. There are many ways you can help your cat to feel more secure in their home. Continue reading “Scent, security, and stress”

Cat Training: The first behavior

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.

IMG_20150325_172107The 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!

Cats have friends too

TailWrap

Many people think of cats as solitary creatures. But, did you know that free-roaming colony cats have complex social relationships?

Cats engage in a variety of behaviors with one another such as allorubbing (one cat rubs against another), allogrooming (one cat grooms another), cuffing (one cat smacks another with its paw), sniffing, playing, laying together… and the list goes on! (1) Cats will engage in these behaviors with and spend more time near (in close proximity to) specific cats, known as “preferred associates.” (2) Preferred associates are basically friends- although the scientific community would avoid this word as it anthropomorphizes (or gives human attributes) the relationship. But, synonyms for friends include “associate”, “playmate”, “familiar” and “companion”, all of which would describe the relationship between preferred associates.

These cats share a social bond akin to friendship in which they frequently play with one another. I have often observed farm cats chasing one another, wrestling each other to the ground and even swatting rocks at one another. They also lay with each other, groom each other, share their scents with each other (allorubbing), share tail wraps (as seen in the photo between Spirit and Sugar) and roll in front of each other- exposing their bellies. This is not to say, as with most friendships, there is not the occasional fight where one cat cuffs another- as I have so often seen when one cat wants to take back a favorite sunny sleeping spot. But in reality we know little about what factors influence cat social relationships and we know even less about how cats form social relationships with humans. Yet, one study did find that cats form attachment bonds with their owners, similar to those between infants and their mothers and between dogs and their owners. (3) Only further research can shed more light into the complex world of inter-species relationships.

(1) Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery6(1), 19–28. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.013
(2) Curtis, T. M., Knowles, R. J., & Crowell-Davis, S. L. (2003). Influence of familiarity and relatedness on proximity and allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis catus)American Journal of Veterinary Research64(9), 1151–1154. doi:10.2460/ajvr.2003.64.1151
(2) Wolfe, R.C. (2001). The social organization of the free ranging domestic cat (Felis catus). PhD dissertation, University of Georgia: Athens, GA.
(2) Shreve, K.R. (2014). The influence of food distribution and relatedness on the social behaviours and proximities of free-roaming cats (Felis silvestris catus). M.En. thesis, Miami University: Oxford, OH.
(3) Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research2(4), 119–125. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2007.06.004