Cat Training A-to-Z: Brief Glossary of Terms

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Rate of reinforcement: The frequency with which the cat is rewarded. The rate of reinforcement can be determined by counting how many rewards a cat is given in 60 seconds and dividing 60 by the number of rewards given. If the cat is given three treats in 60 seconds, the rate of reinforcement is one every 20 seconds. Cats often need a high rate of reinforcement (around 5 to 10 treats per minute) and short sessions to keep them interested in the training.

Redirect: To shift a cat’s focus from an unwanted behavior to a desirable behavior. If a cat is clawing on something forbidden (the sofa), she can be redirected to a scratching post. She can then be rewarded for clawing the appropriate area, which reinforces the acceptable behavior.


Redirected aggression: When a cat is upset about something, such as a feral cat passing by the house or a dog barking in the yard, she may respond by aggressing at something she can reach, like a housemate cat.

Reinforcement, reward(s): A consequence the cat finds pleasurable and desirable. Reinforcement and rewards are learner-dependent; some cats will do what they are asked in return for a treat, while others may be motivated by a special toy, petting or an extra session of play. Reinforcement and rewards are also contextual; what is reinforcing or rewarding in one situation may not be in another. For instance, a cat may find petting rewarding when she's with familiar people but may require a different reward when strangers are around.


Response substitution or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior: Training that teaches a cat to replace an unacceptable behavior with one that is incompatible with that behavior. As an example, a cat who pounces on feet may be taught to go to a spot in order to earn a reward; this puts a stop to the foot pouncing because staying on the mat is incompatible with following moving feet.

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Scavenger hunt, treasure hunt: Hiding treats, food or toys around the house for the cat to find. A scavenger hunt may be used as an alternative to a food puzzle. For example, low-calorie treats can be hidden on perches for the cat to search out and enjoy during the day.

Sensitize: To become more sensitive, alert, fearful or reactive to a specific situation through repeated exposures. For example, a noise may initially cause a cat to startle, but after hearing the noise repeatedly she may progress to cowering, licking lips and hiding. (See also: habituate.)


Setting events: Conditions in a cat’s life that make it more likely that the cat will act in a certain manner. For example, a young cat who doesn’t get enough exercise or mental stimulation may be more wound up and prone to unwanted behavior like climbing curtains.

Kitten Looking in Mirror
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The process by which a kitten learns about the world around him is called socialization.

Shaping: The process of teaching a cat a complex behavior by breaking it down into simple steps. The simple behaviors are trained in a gradual progression, with each new step moving the cat closer to the goal behavior. (See also: successive approximation.)


Socialization: The process by which a kitten learns about the world. The prime socialization period of a kitten is 3 to 7 weeks of age but can extend up to 14 weeks. A kitten’s experiences during this time can influence her perception and reaction to the variety of people and situations she will encounter as she grows.

Stimulus control: When a cue elicits a predictable and reliable response from a cat. For example, when a cat is asked to high five, she does so every time under a variety of different conditions.


Stress: When discussing cats, stress is frequently used as a synonym for distress. Cats can experience stress for a number of reasons, from lack of significant exercise or mental stimulation to unpredictable and punishment-based interactions with humans. Stress can be related to environmental and life situations as well, such as moving, losing a family member or the arrival of a new pet. If a cat is exhibiting signs of stress, it is important to address them as early as possible.

Successive approximation: Small steps that are used to reach a more complex goal or behavior. (See also: shaping.)


Systematic desensitization: Training plan designed to change a cat’s response to an upsetting scenario by breaking it into small pieces that do not trigger a fear response in the cat. The goal is to teach the cat to tolerate the situation without getting upset or anxious.

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