Cats have a bad reputation for being untrainable. The fact of the matter is that cats can be trained, but they have different motivations than dogs.
While dogs might respond positively to a reward of their favorite ball, a scratch behind the ears, or a verbal “good boy,” most cats are best motivated by food. The good news is that positive reinforcement can help train your cat to do many positive behaviors from using the litter box or scratching post all the way up to performing tricks.
This video has some of cat guru Jackson Galaxy’s ideas on the best and worst ways to train your cat.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) agrees that punishing cats for bad behaviors is ineffective at best and harmful to your relationship with your cat at worst. According to their website:
“You may be sorely tempted to yell at your cat if you catch them 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 they’re already done and forgotten about. Instead, they’ll think you’re yelling at them for whatever they’re 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 them avoiding you altogether.”
So what is positive reinforcement and how can you use it to teach your cat what you would like them to do? In short, you want to use treats to reward your cat’s good behaviors. When they learn that doing a certain task gives them a taste of their favorite treat, they are more likely to repeat that task in order to receive more treats.
They key is to reward your cat IMMEDIATELY following a positive behavior, otherwise they won’t understand that the treat they are receiving is connected to the behavior that they just performed. One way to bridge the gap between your cat performing the behavior and receiving the treat is to use a clicker (which can be purchased cheaply from most pet stores). You train your cat that the sound of the clicker means a treat is coming. Then you click the moment your cat does the right thing and follow the click with a treat a few seconds later.
The best time to train your cat is shortly before meal time, when they’re more willing to work for a food treat. Keep training sessions short, since cats are likely to get bored after more than 10-15 minutes of training.
In order to avoid having a fat cat, you’ll eventually want to switch your cat to receiving more praise and affection as a reward for positive behaviors rather than treats. Once you’ve stopped giving treats every time your cat does a desired behavior, you should still use treats as rewards instead of just giving them freely, or else you’re likely to turn your cat into a beggar.