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Who Says You Can't Train A Cat? A Book Of Tips For Feline-Human Harmony

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Feline behavior specialist Sarah Ellis says that contrary to conventional wisdom, cats are more trainable than many people assume.

It's 3 a.m. and Whiskers has decided it's time for breakfast. He jumps up on your bed, gently paws at your eyelids and meows to be fed. Annoyed? Cat behavior specialist Sarah Ellis says you have only yourself to blame.

Ellis says that cat owners reinforce negative behaviors when they give in to them. "Cats are not necessarily born meowing and screaming at us for food, it's a behavior that they learned," Ellis tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Instead of indulging Whiskers' request for an early morning snack, Ellis recommends adopting an "extinction schedule," whereby you ignore the behavior entirely until it stops. If cat owners "can be really strong with that extinction schedule and just make sure at every occurrence of that behavior they do not reward it ... it will stop," Ellis says.

In her book, The Trainable Cat, Ellis and her co-author, John Bradshaw, describe how humans who understand basic feline nature can get their cats to come on command, take medicine and, yes, wait until morning for breakfast.

When it comes to encouraging the positive, Ellis recommends rewards over punishment — especially if the rewards are intermittent. "You don't give a reward every single time," Ellis explains. "This sort of keeps the cat guessing. They don't know if running toward you this time will get the food or it'll be the next time, and that actually makes the behavior more likely to happen."

Interview Highlights

On why cats can be more difficult to train than dogs

Dogs are innately very, very sociable. They have evolved from a social animal, the wolf, and they are incredibly sociable, not just to their own species but to humans. The cat, however, has evolved from a solitary ancestor, the North African wildcat, and that process of domestication has also been much, much shorter ... and therefore the cat hasn't had the chance to develop these social tendencies that the dog already has.

Because of that, ... [cats are] less likely to understand the cues that we may give, for example, things like pointing. They're less likely to naturally attune to us, so they're much less likely to look at our faces, to be able to read our expressions, and that's where we've got less of a currency ... than we have with dogs when training. Because [dogs] naturally want our affection. They naturally want to please us. With cats we have to use a different kind of currency.

On cats being more attached to place than people

The primary attachment for a dog is generally its owner, and so by an attachment bond, think of like a mother and their child. ... A child to be around its mother creates a feeling of safety and security and when you go to a new place as a child, as long as your mother or your parent is there, you still feel a sense of safety, and that's the same for a dog. ...

For the cat, that security does not necessarily come from a person or another animal, it comes from a physical place. Cats are very, very territorial animals, and they create safety by getting to know a physical place very well and by marking that place and impregnating it with their own scent. So when we take a cat out of that physical environment, we've taken away their safety or their security, and that's why they don't cope nearly as well in novel environments.

On getting a cat to come when you call

Most people's cats know their names already, but where people tend to go wrong is they think, Oh he knows his name, I'll use his name to get him to come to me. But because we use their names all the time, it's not a command to say, "Come to me," it's just a word that we say to them that they know they need to give their attention to us.

So the first thing we need to do is think about what word are we going to use that actually means "I want you to move your body over toward me and stop when you get to me." We tend to use "Come" or "here" or any word that works well for you. ...

Let's say I'm training Cosmos, my cat, I would say the word "Cosmos," to get his attention, but then I would always say the word "come," to tell him the command of "What I'd like you to do, now that I've got your attention, is to come toward me." ...

The first thing we do is we make sure the cat is actually quite close to us when we start teaching the recall. When I say close, I mean within a meter or 2 meters, definitely within the same room. We show the cat that we have something that it really likes — so most commonly food. ...

The cat should come toward you purely because you've got food and it's motivated for that food, so choose a time when the cat's hungry, choose a food it really, really likes. ... As soon as the cat gets up and starts to walk toward you — and we're only talking at this stage a few steps — you then give that cat that reward. ...

After doing that in different locations within the house and doing it at different distances, which are increasing, we can start to do it when the cat can no longer see us, it can just hear us. So that's quite good fun. That's when you know you've trained well, you can be in a completely different room of the house, call the cat, give your cue word, and see if the cat comes.

On why the timing of rewards is key

We need to have a message to tell [cats], "That was exactly it, right now, right there what you're doing." If we cannot give the reward at that exact time — and usually the reward is food — we can use other things to pinpoint a reward or mark that behavior that allows the cat to know that food is going to come two minutes later. But the only way you can do that is first of all to create an association between whatever your marker behavior is and your reward. ...

Let's say we were teaching a cat to go through a cat flap. The behavior that we would want to reward going through the cat door, or jumping down, we cannot get food at that exact moment in time, because we might not physically be able to get the food to the other side of the cat door, or to the cat the minute, the second its feet lands on the floor.

So we can use something that we call a marker, and in this case very often with cats I just use a word, and the word often is just "good." But what you have to do before that is teach the cat the word "good" predicts that the real reward, food, is going to come and you do that just simply by pairing those two things, presenting the word "good," so saying it, and then giving food, and doing that time and time again.

And then you know the cat has learned the association when you just say the word "good" and the cat orientates toward you. It might meow at you, it shows you all the behaviors that it normally shows you that are indicative that it knows food is on its way. Then you've got a tool that will allow you to buy those extra few seconds, but it's not going to be a few minutes, it's only going to be a few seconds.

On why you shouldn't punish your cat for bad behavior

The reason that we don't advocate punishment at all is because it can be really, really damaging to the relationship of the cat with the human. If you get your timing wrong, you may be punishing a very different behavior to what you think you're punishing, and that can be quite disastrous. And secondly, if you're delivering that punishment, so you are holding a water sprayer, or you are throwing something at the cat, or you are physically smacking its back-end off the kitchen counter or whatever it is, the cat will associate that punishment with you and may not associate it with the actual act of what it's doing, because you're very salient in that environment at that time, and you are the one delivering the punishment.

So all you're doing then is teaching your cat that you're not a very good person to be around, that you deliver quite unpleasant consequences, and therefore the cat will start to avoid you, rather than stopping to do that behavior. So the cat may well carry on doing the behavior you didn't want, just not in the presence of you, so now you've got a cat that's still doing the behavior that you don't want, but it's also actively avoiding you and you've damaged that relationship.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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