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"You can't train a cat! Cats train people — that's how it works."
I hear this all the time from friends and clients alike — and I always disagree. As an animal trainer, I’m on a mission to increase awareness that cats can, indeed, be trained. Positive reinforcement training (which is widely recognized as useful in training dogs) can be extremely beneficial for cats. The benefits of this type of training include resolution of certain behavioral issues and an increased bond between pets and pet owners. Your cat can also benefit from the physical and mental stimulation of training, as well as the emotional boost and positive associations created by reward-based methods.
Before diving into the principles behind cat training, though, it’s important to address the most common stumbling block for many pet owners: The idea of getting a cat to do anything the cat does not want to do on her own can seem ridiculous. After all, cats are not the type of creature who can be forced to do much of anything against their will — just ask anyone who's tried to put a resistant cat into a carrier for a vet trip.
The good news is that the best type of training for cats is done in a nonconfrontational manner where the feline willingly participates. In other words, you’re not forcing your cat to do something she doesn’t want to do — you’re teaching her to want to do what you’re asking.
I know what you’re thinking: Willing participation… from a cat? Absolutely! After all, this same type of positive reinforcement training is commonly used in zoo settings with your cat’s predatory relatives, the lion, cheetah and tiger. For both predatory cats and domesticated felines, the key to training is to communicate with them in an effective manner. And positive reinforcement training allows you to do just that.
The fist step in training your cat is to find the right reward — something your cat is willing to work for. Sure, it would be great if your cat would do what you ask simply because she wants to please you. But think about it this way: As much as you might love your job, you would most likely stop showing up if your company did away with your salary and benefits. Your cat feels the same way: She’s willing to do what you ask — and might even enjoy it! — but you’ve got to make it worth her while.
Odds are, you are already offering your cat a variety of rewards, such as treats or toys, throughout the day. Training means switching from rewarding your cat for just being your cat to rewarding her for specific behaviors. In other words, all those treats and toys need to become contingent on the cat doing what you ask her to do.
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