November 9, 2009
Training Your Cat With Positive Reinforcement
With encouragement and plenty of treats, you and your cat can accomplish great things.
Do this, not that
If you want your cat to repeat a behavior, reward that behavior. People frequently reward a behavior that they don't really want to encourage. For example, when your cat talks to you, do you talk to him, do you pet him, do you give him a treat? You're teaching your cat that meowing brings rewards. If you don't reward his meowing, in other words you ignore him when he meows, he's unlikely to become a meower. If you really like a quiet cat, reward him when he's not meowing
Crime and punishment
You may be sorely tempted to yell at your cat if you catch her sitting next to a broken vase or clawing the furniture, but punishing your cat after the fact is ineffective. She won't connect the punishment with something she's already done and forgotten about. Instead, she'll think you're yelling at her for whatever she's doing at that very moment, which might be welcoming you home from work.
Yelling, hitting, and shaking will only make your cat fearful and confused and could lead to her avoiding you altogether.
Motivation is the key to training. Money and love are great motivators for people. Toys, walks, car rides, and praise can do it for dogs. For most cats, it's food. They care less about "good kitty" than about good kitty treats.
So to motivate your cat, you're going to reward her with a treat every time she uses the scratching post, lets you brush her, or brings you a beer from the fridge. Scratch her head and tell her she's a pretty girl at the same time, but make sure you give her that treat.
Smart cats will soon link that behavior with getting treats.
Providing a reward can be helpful in training your cat to be calm during procedures she may not otherwise like, such as nail trims, brushing, going into the carrier, or being picked up. But for some cats, discomfort outweighs eating, so it may not work in all cases.
Timing is everything in training your cat. Cats have short attention spans, so the reward must come immediately (within seconds) of the behavior or your cat may not know what it's for.
For example, if you see her use the scratching post, throw some treats her way while she's scratching and tell her she's a good cat, but don't throw the treats if she has stopped scratching and is starting to something else of it's that "something else" that she'll think merits the reward.
This is an important part of training. Use the same technique each time for each behavior, and make sure everyone in the family does the same.
You can also reward your cat for a behavior she does naturally, or you can introduce a new behavior and reward her for learning it.
- Natural behavior. An example of rewarding natural behavior is giving treats for using the scratching post (see above) or standing on her hind legs.
- New behavior. You use rewards to teach your cat a new routine—to come when you call, for example. Call her name and reward her when she responds. Move to another spot, call her name, and reward her when she responds, and so on.
When to train
The best time to train is right before meal time when your cat is most motivated by food. Only train for short periods at a time (15 minutes max) or your cat may lose interest. As soon as she stops responding, stop training.
Weaning off treats
Because too many treats lead to a fat cat, your goal is to gradually wean her off the food rewards and make her settle for emotional ones such as a "good kitty," a toss of her fuzzy ball, or a scratch under the chin.
Once your cat is displaying the desired behavior reliably, you can start cutting back on food. Give her treats three out of every four times she does the behavior, then reduce it to about half the time, then about a third of the time and so on, until you're only rewarding her occasionally with a treat.
Continue the praise and non-food rewards. Your cat will learn that if she keeps offering desired behaviors, eventually she'll get what she wants—your praise and an occasional treat.
Don't try this at home
There are a couple of things you shouldn't do when training.
- Don't force a behavior. Don't pick your cat up and take her to the scratching post or litter box to get her to use them. She won't understand what you're doing and will likely get frightened and run away.
- Don't turn your cat into a beggar. Use treats only for training. If you give your cat a treat every time she paws you,, she'll quickly learn that pawing=treat and won't leave you alone.