Training Your Cat? How to Keep Him Motivated

Cat and feather toy
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Not all cats are motivated by the same things. Yours may place more value on a favorite toy or treat, while others may prefer petting.

Does your cat seem unmotivated to pick up the desirable habits you’re attempting to teach him? Is he clinging to the bad habits you wish he’d give up? Well, you’re not alone: Changing a pet’s behavior isn’t easy. But with patience, consistency and the right plan it is possible to train your cat to do what you ask.

A key concept of any successful training plan is motivation. In the end, it’s all about ensuring the right behaviors pay off so that your cat is more likely to repeat them.

Adjust Your Expectations

A common belief about cats is that they do their own thing, in their own time, on their own terms, with no regard for what their owners may want. As a result, many cat owners believe that their felines are untrainable.

In fact, cats are very similar to humans: They do what works for them and avoid anything that doesn’t. Just like us, our cats engage in behaviors that offer some sort of reward or pay off and avoid those that aren’t worth the effort or that result in punishment.

It is important to remember that you can’t expect your cat to do the things you want simply to please you. Imagine if your employer did away with your salary and benefits and expected you to continue working just to please your boss. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Find the Right Reward

Your cat may share a deep emotional connection with you, but to successfully motivate him to change his behavior it’s important to pay him in a way that he values. Start by identifying what motivates your cat. Does he have a favorite toy? How about a favorite treat? Or maybe he’s the type who just loves to curl up in your lap when you sit down. Identify the things your cat loves and then use them as rewards for a job well done. Be sure to offer a variety of rewards to keep your cat interested and stave off boredom. If play time is his favorite thing, for example, rotate toys on a regular basis to keep him interested.

Your cat also needs to see the reward as worthwhile and equal to the effort he’s making. More difficult behaviors will require a more substantial or valuable reward than behaviors your cat naturally does or finds easy. Your cat may also value rewards differently in different situations: A high-distraction environment may call for an extra special reward, like flakes of tuna rather than just bits of kibble. Your cat’s mood may also influence the value of a reward — petting may be reinforcing when your cat is calm and settled while a rousing play time may be most rewarding if he’s feeling active and energetic.

Finally, keep in mind that a reward only works to reinforce desired behavior if your cat sees it as a reward. So while you may think that petting and praise are a good way to acknowledge your cat’s efforts, your cat may not agree, particularly in situations where he’s anxious or distracted. Tailor the reward to both his personality and the specific situation.

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