Teaching My Cat to Love My Husband — Step 4
Published on May 13, 2015
Vetstreet contributing editor Kristen Seymour’s husband, Jared, loves cats. Unfortunately, their cat, Trixie, doesn’t care much for Jared — so they’ve enlisted trainer Mikkel Becker to help them teach Trixie that Jared’s actually kind of a catch. This post is the fourth in a series — be sure to check out part one, part two and part three. And stay tuned for part five, where Kristen will report back on Trixie and Jared’s progress!
Jared and Kristen have been working to teach their 2-year-old cat, Trixie, to love Jared. Trixie came to them from a shelter; she had been rescued after giving birth to a litter of kittens. Before the shelter, she was almost feral, and she is still hesitant around people in general — and Jared in particular.
But with patience and training, I believe that Trixie can be taught to tolerate (and maybe even like!) Jared. The most important goal for Jared and Kristen as they begin working to change Trixie’s behavior is to turn the things that alarm her into reasons to celebrate.
Minimizing Fear Triggers
Kristen and Jared should start by making a list of triggers that upset Trixie. Based on what Kristen has told me and what I saw in the video of Jared and Trixie interacting, I suggested that they start by teaching Trixie to stay calm when people are in close proximity, particularly Jared. They can also work on easing any fears she has of position changes, such as someone moving from standing to sitting or sudden movements, like walking or hands reaching toward her.
The most effective way to address situations that cause fear is to condition the animal to these situations in a way that will not cause her stress and to pair them with something she likes. For example, instead of reaching out and touching Trixie, Jared could slowly move his hand a couple of inches to the side and immediately follow this movement with a reward.
Kristen can also offer rewards when Trixie responds positively to Jared’s presence. For instance, when Jared walks into the room, Kristen should offer Trixie a reward. She should continue to reward Trixie while Jared is in the room — any time he moves, stands or speaks. When he leaves the room, though, Kristen should stop offering treats. This creates an association between Jared’s presence and the treats.
To make it easy to deliver rewards, Kristen and Jared should set up treat stations around the house or have Jared wear a treat bag like those used for training dogs. Either way, they should make sure they have easy access to treats when they are around Trixie.
As Trixie becomes more comfortable with Jared’s presence, he can progress to acting more like his normal self — speaking in a normal tone, moving around at a normal pace, doing whatever it is that he typically does. In addition, Jared should offer Trixie treats randomly through the day — when he walks past her cat tree, for example, or while she’s waiting for him to serve her dinner.
Make Behavior Predictable
Jared and Kristen should also work on conditioning Trixie to see certain interactions, like petting, as predictable events that bring good things.
To do this, they should start by pairing the verbal cue “pet” with a light touch immediately followed by a reward. Over time, they can progress to actual petting, at first lightly and for a short duration and then, as Trixie gets more comfortable, for longer periods. The cue word “pet” alerts Trixie to what will happen next, while pairing the petting with a reward turns it into something she will look forward to.
I suggest that Kristen do the petting in the beginning, since Trixie seems to be more open to having Kristen touch her, but as Trixie gets more comfortable with being touched and petted, Jared can begin to pet her as well.
Once Trixie is comfortable having Jared pet her, even briefly, he can add a moment of petting just before he serves Trixie’s meal. The strategy for this is for Jared to say the cue “pet” and pet Trixie just briefly and then deliver part of her meal, perhaps mixed with canned food as an extra treat. As she gets more comfortable with this, he can increase the amount of time he spends petting Trixie before he feeds her.
Not every behavior or interaction can be completely planned, so it’s important to teach Trixie not to be afraid of unusual sounds or movements. Since Trixie seems to be fearful of Jared’s coughs, it would be worthwhile to spend some time conditioning her to ignore them. Jared and Kristen can do this by pairing a pretend cough with a treat or a toy Trixie loves. If Jared really coughs, he should immediately offer Trixie a treat. This will teach her to associate good things with the sound of the cough.
Because Jared travels and is away from home, Kristen should record the sound of his cough and play it for Trixie when he’s away. Each time she plays the sound, Kristen should offer Trixie a treat. When he returns, she will not be quite so nervous around the noise, which should help her to be more comfortable in his presence.
Teaching Trixie to Target
Training is an effective way to bond with a cat. I recommend that Jared and Kristen start by teaching Trixie to target. The idea of targeting is to teach a cat to touch an object — either a stick with a little bit of wet food smeared on it or a hand — with her face. This is a good way to get a cat used to being touched or lifted on her own terms. A target can also be used to encourage a cat to move willingly to a specific spot, like a perch or a person’s lap.
Jared can use the target to encourage Trixie to approach him. He can offer her the target stick (or his hand, if he prefers) and reward her for touching the target. At first, he will need to be fairly close to Trixie, but as she gets comfortable with touching the target, he can work on moving farther away. He can also add a cue word, like “come.” Paired with the target and the reward, this will teach Trixie to come when called.
Targeting is one more way to make Trixie’s interactions with Jared more predictable. It gives her a go-to way to interact with him (by touching her nose to his hand or the target) and teaches her to associate his approach with something good (the reward).
Once she is comfortable responding to the target, Jared can use it to get her to move with him, very much like teaching a dog to heel. This is a useful to way to get her comfortable with his movement: He can teach her that walking with him is fun, rather than frightening, which will make it less of an issue when he’s coming and going around the house.
The Ultimate Reward
I’ve recommended that Jared and Kristen use treats to get Trixie comfortable around Jared. For a little while at least, this may mean a lot of treating. But over time, as she gets more comfortable around Jared, they can begin to fade the treats and substitute other rewards, like a toy or — hopefully — some gentle petting. The interaction itself can even become reinforcing for Trixie — in other words, spending time with Jared will become its own reward.
Patience is the key for Kristen and Jared when it comes to training. Many cats have very short attention spans; for this reason, training sessions only need to last a couple of minutes and should be repeated a few times throughout the day. It is important for Jared and Kristen to remember that Trixie will progress at her own pace, but that her progress also depends on the amount of time they can and do invest in her training.
One final note: Every family, animal and situation is unique, and not every strategy will work in every situation. In addition, it is always important to start any behavior-modification process with a visit to the veterinarian to check for underlying health issues, as these may be contributing factors in any behavior issue.
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