Everything You Need to Know about Training Your Kitten
We don't really think of ourselves as training our cats aside from litter training - which, in most cases, the mother cat has already done for us, so we can claim little credit there! Our relationship with dogs is based much more on the animal learning to do what it is asked or told to do. With cats it is usually the other way around. Wily beasts that they are, they very slowly and gently train their owners to do their bidding. Are there some lessons we can learn from how they work that might allow us to have a little control over them - or at least let us think we have trained them to do something?
Let's first think about why animals (and people for that matter) behave in certain ways. Like most living things, cats will do things because it benefits them to do so. Of course, it benefits them to get themselves out of situations that cause fear or pain, and they are then unlikely to put themselves in those situations again - not voluntarily, anyway. Therefore, if you want repetition of a behavior, you need the cat's cooperation and a desire to do it again. The cat needs to feel it is getting a reward for behaving in a certain way.
Punishment is not a good teaching tool. It will lead to resentment, fear, and stress for both the cat and the owner. Fear is a great inhibitor to learning. Some people may say that the cat knows it has done wrong when, for example, it scratches the wallpaper or sprays indoors. This is not so - it may associate the action with you behaving in a very irrational fashion, jumping about and screaming or attacking it, but none of this will make it feel guilty - merely confused and scared. The link between the owner's anger and the behavior is rarely made by the animal. All it succeeds in doing is breaking down the relationship. If the behaviors were first carried out as a natural response to the way the cat was feeling - perhaps frightened or threatened by another cat - punishment will do nothing to put this right, but rather will give the cat more to worry about. There are ways of interrupting behaviors you do not want without associating negative things with you as a loving owner who should be providing an environment to encourage confidence, not conflict and fear.
And remember, a cat is not a dog. A dog is a pack-oriented animal. It has a behavior repertoire that allows it to compromise, to give in, and still be accepted within the pack. Being part of the pack is all important, and the dog will remain within the pack even if it receives punishment. So we can train dogs using all the wrong methods of fear and threat, and they will probably give in and do as they are asked. They may not carry out the tasks with much enthusiasm and will go through life feeling fearful, but they feel a strong need to stay and compromise if possible. Cats are a different matter altogether. While they can be sociable if they want to, when it comes down to it, a cat walks on its own. There is no support group to hunt with or to defend it - it is responsible for its own survival and safety. It does not have a great behavioral repertoire for compromise and will not be motivated to stay where it feels threatened and uncomfortable. You need to think in a much more clever way when you deal with cats. If you use the same thinking for dogs and work with reward instead of punishment, you will find they respond exceptionally well. They will work hard to gain reward for the task as well as the reward of fitting into a stable and predictable place within the pack - making a contented and happy dog.
So: think reward. Rewards for cats come in many shapes and forms, and what is great for one kitten may not move another. Going back to dogs for a moment, getting the reward right is easier - a great many dogs are very, very motivated by food. They crave attention and a place in the pack, and many are bred - and so have a drive - to undertake certain tasks. Allowing them to undertake these tasks — such as retrieving or scent-following - will be a reward in itself. We have all seen working dogs having a great time undertaking tasks that suit them. Ask a greyhound to retrieve or a Labrador to run around a track and you might not be so successful!
What can we offer cats? Some of them enjoy food or certain treats; some crave attention; others want only play. Punishment will get you nowhere, so you cannot force them, as we might be able to do with dogs, or people for that matter. Think about how we train different animals: how would you punish a killer whale if it doesn't leap high enough? Once again, more thinking and less forcing is required. So while as a race we revert to punishment out of frustration only too often, we have to rise above this, learn something about motivation, and act in a way that is much more rewarding all around. With cats you need to be much more cerebral and use much less force! This characteristic will make training your kitten both challenging and very rewarding. If you can train your cat, you can use the techniques on the children or the dog and find it easy -you will have thought through what the pupil might want, learned how to motivate him, and then honed your timing skills so that your pupil knows the reward is for the action you intended. A very good start!
As this stage, you may be asking, "Why would I want to train my cat?" Yes, you could train it to do tricks, but most of us feel that cats are far too dignified to do that. When dealing with such an elegant and independent animal (the very reasons why most of us have cats), training should be sensitive and fun, and there are practical reasons for doing a little bit of it. What you are aiming to do is to train your kitten to respond to you. It is very useful to be able to call your kitten to come to you and to be able to communicate to it which behaviors are appropriate in the house and which are not. Training will also strengthen the bond between you and your cat - it will make you look at each other in a slightly different way. Studying what works between you and what doesn't can prove very useful in keeping your cat stimulated and active. It can also be a great confidence booster for you both. You will begin to think about new ways of reinforcing behaviors and successes. Good relationships between any two individuals, be they people or a person and an animal, are based on mutual respect and good communication. And this requires intelligent thought. Using kind, gentle, and effective training methods should result in a meeting of minds; if you succeed, you have really started to understand how cats think. Of course, in order to do this, you might need to do a little homework about cats, how they communicate, how they see the world, and what their natural reactions are, but you may need to gather more books on cat behavior to really grasp it.
What motivates a kitten to learn - especially to learn something you want it to do that is new to its repertoire? Cats, not being slave-like creatures, will rarely do something for nothing. You will have to find something special, something you know it loves - a prawn, a bit of cheese or chicken, or a liver-flavored treat. It's no good offering a bit of dry cat food from the bowl, which it can eat any time it likes. It would be like offering you a slice of bread as a reward for learning how to do your tax return -lobster and champagne might be nearer the mark. Various treats are available at the pet shop or supermarket; find one your kitten loves but don't give in to the temptation to use it all the time. Save treats for maximum motivating! Some cats are not at all motivated by food of any kind but may respond to playing with a particular toy or being talked to and stroked in a certain way. A good motivator is really essential in the initial stages of training.
Once you have found your motivating tool, you have to learn about timing. As in comedy, timing is all-important when it comes to rewarding your pet. You have to provide the reward and the kitten has to be aware of it as soon as it performs the desired behavior. The kitten needs to make the connection between what it has done and the thing it wants, so that it associates the behavior with something rather nice. A delay of even a second may destroy the connection and the kitten will not get the message - that will be your fault, not the kitten being slow to learn.
Next you have to think carefully about what you want your kitten to do. Again, think about the task from the kitten's point of view. If you want to teach it to use the cat flap, realize that it will not know that if you push hard enough on this seemingly solid object, you will make it open up. It will not understand that it can climb through and not have to worry as it closes on its tail! Always break the task down into as many small stages as possible and work toward achieving each step in a quiet and methodical way. Visiting Sea World in Florida I saw a spectacular trick in which one of the killer whales swam beneath a trainer and came up underneath his feet extremely fast, pushing him out of the water with his nose. The trainer shot up -the force with which he was propelled was extremely impressive. I wondered how many steps it had taken to get that right. Getting it wrong could also be extremely dangerous. And while a cat is not a killer whale, it is almost impossible to rush a cat - any impatience on your part will just turn it off from trying altogether. You don't get away with being a bad trainer with a cat, either.
Choose a time when there are no distractions so you can both concentrate - children, dogs, and other cats may try to join in if they think the kitten is the center of attention, so prepare the time and place and have your reward at the ready. Don't try to grab five minutes between cooking the dinner, answering the phone, and getting the kids to bed. Take care of all that, take a deep breath, and then consider it. See what mood the kitten is in. All of us have times of the day (or whole days) when we don't want to concentrate or try anything new. At other times we are very excited about learning. The same can be said for you, the trainer - don't do it if you are feeling grumpy or short-tempered: you could do more harm than good.
Likewise, if the kitten seems tired, overexcited, or just bored, just try a couple of times and give up on a high if you can. Have you ever found that when you try something for the first time it is very difficult, but on coming back and trying again the next day it doesn't seem half so bad? This is known as latent learning - the gap between first attempting the new behavior and then returning to it with a greater understanding the next time. It can be very helpful in training and reassuring to you if you think that you haven't achieved anything - you may get more done by trying short, enjoyable sessions with breaks in between.
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