Cat Body Language
You’ve found a cat trainer you like and you’re excited to be working with her — but then she recommends clicker training or variable reinforcement or redirection and you have no idea what she’s talking about. Trainer Mikkel Becker can help: She’s defined some of the most commonly used cat training terms, so you can communicate successfully with your trainer and help teach your cat to be a well-mannered feline.


Behavior modification: The process of changing an animal’s behavior. The goal of behavior modification is to reduce undesirable or problematic behavior by modifying the situation in such a way that the problem behavior no longer pays off. Over time, problem behaviors should become less frequent, fade entirely or be replaced by more desirable behaviors.

Body language: Physical postures and movements used by felines to communicate with other animals and people. Body language — often in combination with vocalizations like meows, growls, hisses or chirps — can provide insight into a feline’s emotional state or intent in a specific situation.


Classical conditioning: Repeated pairings of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus generates the unconditioned response, or one which requires no specific training. For example, the smell of food (an unconditioned stimulus) may cause a cat to salivate (the unconditioned response). Over time, the cat may learn to associate the sound of a wrapper or can opener (a neutral stimulus) with the food and may begin to salivate when she hears the noise (the unconditioned response). Eventually, the can opener or wrapper sound becomes a conditioned stimulus, one that elicits a consistent response.

Click: The action of using a marker (most often a clicker) to pinpoint a desired behavior. May also be used to describe the sound the clicker makes.

Clicker training: A form of positive reinforcement training that uses a signal, most commonly a clicker, to pinpoint correct behavior. The signal is immediately followed by a desirable reward, such as a treat, a toy or an opportunity to play. The signal helps the cat identify which behavior is earning her the reward.

Conflicted: When a cat simultaneously wants to do something and is afraid to do it. For example, a cat can be conflicted when approaching someone new: She wants to approach to smell and investigate but is afraid of the person reaching his or her hands out or bending over to pet her.

Counter conditioning: The process of changing a cat’s emotional reaction to a situation from negative to positive. This is done by gradually exposing the the cat to a situation in a way that does not upset her while pairing the situation with a desirable reward. The goal is to teach the cat to associate the situation with something positive. An example of this type of scenario is teaching a cat that a person coming into the house is something to get excited about rather than be afraid of. Through counter conditioning, the cat can be taught that a new person coming into the house is the signal for a treat, rather than a reason to run and hide.

Criteria: The standard by which a pet owner judges a behavior or the standard used to decide which behavior is acceptable and which is unacceptable. Criteria can be adjusted as needed during training in order to enable the cat to successfully learn the correct behavior.

Cue: Signal given to a cat to elicit a desired behavior. “Cue” and “command” are traditionally synonymous, but the word “command” is not commonly used in reward-based training, as it has a connotation of using force to make a cat do something. “Cue” is most often used to refer to a training situation where a cat is asked to perform a behavior and is rewarded for her success.


Desensitize: Getting a cat used to a scenario that causes her distress by gradually presenting the situation in a manner that does not upset the cat.

Cat on Cat Tree
Distraction(s): Sounds, smells, sights and other stimuli that detract from a cat’s ability to remain focused or perform what’s being asked. A low-distraction environment is ideal for training.


Enrichment: Any attempt to promote a cat’s physical and psychological well being through specific activities (food puzzles that mimic hunting, for example) or changes to the environment (cat trees that facilitate climbing).

Extinction: Ending a behavior by removing reinforcement. For example, a cat paws at her owner to get attention; if the person ignores the cat while she’s pawing, removing the reward of attention, that behavior ceases to be rewarding and the cat will usually stop pawing. Extinction does not require punishment; instead, it relies on removing reinforcement of unwanted behavior.

Extinction burst: When previously reinforced behavior no longer works to get the desired reward, pet owners may see a surge of stronger, more intense behavior as the cat makes one last effort to get the reinforcement she seeks. A cat who has been rewarded for pawing may do so with increased gusto when she realizes that she’s being ignored. It is important to note that when a behavior is no longer reinforced, it can sometimes get worse — and more intense — before it fades away.


Fading the lure: The process of taking the lure out of the training so the cat learns to do the requested behavior in response to another cue, such as a hand signal or word. Fading the lure teaches the cat to do the behavior without being dependent upon a treat being in the trainer’s hand. To fade the lure, certain tricks can be used, such as keeping a treat in the hand doing the luring but rewarding with a treat given with the other hand. From there, progress to holding the hand shaped like it has a treat but with no treat inside. Next, gradually decrease the size of the hand movement needed to cue the behavior or shift the behavior to a new cue.

Fear-free or fearless vet visits: A low-stress approach popular in the veterinary community and other associated practices, like boarding, grooming and training, in which handling, interactions and procedures are done in a manner designed to keep the cat as calm as possible. Other strategies include changing the environment, using medications when necessary and offering rewards to encourage willing cooperation from the cat. In every case, the goal is to keep the experience as positive as possible.

Functional analysis, or the ABC of a behavior: Functional analysis looks at three components of behavior: antecedent, behavior and consequence. Behavior issues can by analyzed using this approach, starting with what elicits the behavior. For a behavior like mouthing a human’s hands, the antecedent might be a person sitting down on the couch or floor. The behavior is what the cat does, such as coming near, freezing, pouncing and then mouthing hands with body language indicative of play. Finally, the consequence is what happens to the cat when she mouths — for example, the person responds by allowing the cat to play with his fingers. The ABC analysis can help identify both the problem and the solution. In this example, playing with the cat reinforces the pouncing and mouthing, because the cat is being rewarded for her behavior.


Generalize: A behavior is considered generalized when a cat can reliably be asked to perform the specific behavior in a variety of different contexts. For example, a cat may consistently respond to a request to sit when she’s in the kitchen, but this behavior may not be as reliable in a different area of the home, like the living room. Cats generalize to a certain degree, but for behaviors to be reliably performed anywhere, they need to be practiced in a wide range of circumstances.

Go to your spot: A cat who is taught to go to her spot (or station) learns to go to a specific area and wait there until she is released. A typical spot is a perch, crate or bed.


Habituate: To become accustomed to a specific situation through repeated exposures. A cat may alert at a noise, for instance, but after hearing the noise repeatedly, she may become indifferent to it and begin to ignore it. This type of learning occurs naturally and doesn’t require a structured training plan. (See also: sensitize.)


Interrupt: To turn a cat’s focus away from an unwanted behavior as an intervention to stop the unwanted behavior. From there, the cat can be redirected to an acceptable behavior. An interruption does not need to be loud or sudden; a slight shuffle of the feet or a quiet clap is ideal.


Low-stress handling: See fear-free or fearless vet visits.

Lure-based training: Using something that a cat is willing to follow (most commonly food or a toy) to guide the cat into a desired position (a sit, for example). Once the cat is in the desired position, the lure is used as a reward. A lure can be a treat held in the hand, food on the end of a spoon, a toy or any other object that a cat will follow as it is moved.


Management: Controlling the environment so that the cat doesn’t have an opportunity to rehearse an unwanted behavior. For example, a management strategy for a cat that jumps on kitchen counters when food is being prepared is to put the cat in another area, such as a cat-proofed room, during meal prep.

Mark: To use a specific signal at the moment a desired behavior occurs to indicate an acceptable behavior. (See also: marker.)

Marker: A stimulus that pinpoints the behavior the cat did to earn a reward. The most common markers are either a clicker or a specific word, such as “good” or “yes.” The marker should be used at the exact moment the behavior occurs. For example, when teaching a sit, the marker should be used as soon as the cat’s bottom touches the ground. The same marker should be consistently used by every member of the family or household and should always be immediately followed by a reward.

Motivated: When a cat’s behavior is influenced by something she wants and is willing to work for. A cat who is motivated by games with a wand toy is both willing to play the game and willing to do what she’s asked in order to get access to the game, such as sit before the game is started.


Negative reinforcement: Use of an aversive or undesirable consequence to teach a specific behavior.


Operant conditioning: Increase or decrease in certain behaviors based on the associated consequences of the behavior. For instance, a kitten may learn to be less forward and more polite when she gets swiped with a paw for being too pushy. Or the kitten may learn that when she stalks and pounces on a person wearing slippers, the person shakes his or her feet playfully back, reinforcing the pouncing. The quadrants of learning (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment) fall under the heading of operant conditioning.


Cat Getting Treat
Positive reinforcement: Use of positive, desirable or pleasurable consequences to teach a behavior. An example is offering a cat a reward, such as a treat or toy, for an acceptable behavior.

Predatory behavior: Behavior that mimics hunting, capturing and consuming prey. In cats, hints of predatory behavior are evident in some forms of play, such as stalking, pouncing on and biting a feather toy. A cat may also exhibit this behavior with live prey— for example, a cat may actually kill and potentially consume a bug or mouse.

Prompt: Using extra reminders, such as pointing, treats or bigger gestures, to elicit a desired behavior when the cat fails to respond to the initial cue.

Punishment: Use of aversive stimuli to decrease or change a behavior. Punishment has a variety of negative consequences. Frequent use of punishment may lead the cat to fear her person. Other unintended negative outcomes may be an escalation of the problem behavior or an increase in aggression.

Push, drop, stick: Shorthand way to know if a cat is ready for the next step in training. Put the cat through five trials of a desired behavior. If the cat can correctly do the behavior four or five times, push to the next level of difficulty. If she gets it right two or fewer times, drop to a previous, easier level. If she gets it right three out of five times, stick to that level.


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.


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
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.


Target: Teaching a cat to touch a certain part of herself (her nose or paw) to an object or area (a person’s hand or a target stick). Targeting can be used to get a cat to move willingly from one place to another (into and out of a crate or carrier, for example) or to teach a new behavior, such as a spin. Targeting can also help cats to overcome fear of certain objects; a cat can be taught to target a pair of nail clippers as a way of reducing the stress associated with nail trims.

Threshold: A way of describing a cat’s emotional state in a certain situation. A cat who is under threshold is tolerant and relaxed. A cat who is at threshold is mildly stressed, while a cat who is over threshold is anxious and reactive.


Cat Hissing
Variable schedule of reinforcement: A variance in the amount of time or number of behaviors required for a cat to earn a reward. A variable schedule helps keep the cat excited about and invested in the training.


Warning signals: Behaviors used by a cat to communicate discomfort with a situation. These can include growling, hissing and tail swishing. These signals are used to warn a person or another cat to slow down and back off. It is important not to punish or disregard warning signals, because they are indicators of the cat’s discomfort; instead, the situation needs to be addressed in order to prevent a bite or a fight.

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