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!

Contemplating Cat Personality in Cat-Human Relationships

Oregonians- check out an upcoming talk where I will discuss the role of cat personality in the cat-human relationship!

Contemplating Cat Personality in Cat-Human Relationships
Is your cat a unique individual with a distinct personality? Scientific research indicates- yes! Cats display a wide range of personalities that influence their relationship with humans. This talk will examine current feline personality research as well as the applied benefits of considering personality when adopting, training or interacting with cats.

WHEN: July 9, 2015 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
WHERE: Willamette Humane Society Education Hall 4246 Turner Road Southeast Salem, OR 97317

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Cats have friends too

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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

Do cats understand human emotions? Yes!

Here I talk about an extremely interesting study that examined the ability of cats to detect human emotion. The study is entitled “Social referencing and cat–human communication” and was published in Animal Cognition in 2015.

Merola and colleagues examined if cats have the ability to use social referencing– or the ability of an individual to evaluate another individuals’s emotional state and change their behavior in response. This behavior has been seen in many social species including humans, non-human primates, and dogs. This ability is especially helpful in unfamiliar situations where the animal may not know how to react.

For example, lets saIMG_20141029_171235y a cat has never encountered a dog before (an unfamiliar or strange event). The cat may not know how to react- should the cat be terrified and run for it’s life? Or, should it approach the dog and interact? If cats have the ability to socially reference their owner, they could observe how their owner reacts to the dog and adjust their behavior in response to their owner’s behavior. If the owner is happy to see the dog and interacts with it freely (positive emotional state), the cat may do so as well. Or, if the owner appears frightened of the dog and retreats (negative emotional state), the cat may do so as well.

So, Merola and colleagues presented the cats with two states, one in which their owner acted afraid of an unfamiliar object and the other in which their owner acted positively toward the unfamiliar object, which in this study was a fan turned on with streamers attached (making an unfamiliar noise as well). Researchers then observed the cat’s behavior in the different owner emotion conditions.

The researchers found the majority (79%) of cats exhibited referential looking, a measure of the social referencing ability in which the cat shifts their gaze from the unfamiliar object back to the owner to pick up social information. Additionally, cats “also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.

This is an interesting find, especially since we know so little about cat-human communication. This will not surprise many cat owners, who will tell you their cat knows when human members of the family are upset and will actively comfort them, as has happened so often to me!