Most cat owners have had a cat that misbehaved. A cat that dashed outside when it shouldn’t, jumped on counters, was too aggressive with your other pets, or did other naughty things. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could train our cats not to do bad things?
Good news: we can! Cats are smart creatures that just need us to show them what we expect. With a little time and effort, we can have a cat that does want we want.
To start training a cat, you’ll first want to identify the natural need that your cat’s naughty behavior satisfies. Then you’ll work on changing the environment. After that, you’ll take steps to discourage the bad behavior. Finally, you’ll figure out a way to satisfy your cat’s needs with a new behavior that you reinforce. To explain how all this works, I’ll use the example of teaching a cat not to jump onto counters.
The first step is to figure out why your cat is jumping onto the counter. There are four main reasons: to scavenge for food, to check out surroundings from up high, to feel safe, or to get attention when we pick our cat up or yell at our cat for being naughty.
The second step is to change the environment. If your cat is a foodie, you should eliminate any traces of food. Do this by washing and putting away dishes and cleaning counters as soon as possible after food preparation.
If your cat is an explorer or a safety-seeker, you just need to provide an alternative high spot. Do this by placing a tall stool, window perch, or a cat tree near the counter, and then use positive reinforcement to encourage your cat to use this new spot.
Here’s how positive reinforcement works in this situation. The first time your cat jumps on the counter, remove her and place her on the floor. Then tap on the stool, perch, or tree with a treat or toy, whichever your cat favors. When your cat jumps on the stool, reinforce her with the treat or a few seconds of playtime. If your cat doesn’t respond to your tapping, hold the treat or toy in front of her and lure her to the new spot. And, if that doesn’t work, reward your cat for smaller steps towards success: for moving towards the new spot, for being near the new spot, for touching the new spot, etc.
If your cat is an attention-seeker, you’ll use a slightly different approach. Foremost, you must stop giving your cat attention when he’s on the counter. Yes, as tough as this will be, you’ll need to ignore his counter-surfing. This solution alone won’t be enough. You’ll also need to “capture” the behavior you do want. Basically, whenever your cat jumps off the counter, you should reinforce her for being on the floor.
Unfortunately, these measures alone are unlikely to be enough, as by now your cat views the counter as a source of food. The third step is to make the counter unattractive to your cat. There are several accepted ways for doing this: cover the countertops with aluminum foil, bubble wrap, or placemats with double-sided tape on top.
The final step is to find another way to satisfy your cat’s natural needs. For example, if your cat counter surfs in search of food, discourage him from counter-surfing during your mealtimes by feeding him at the same times.
Depending on what behavior you’re trying to teach your cat, here are some tips to keep in mind. First, keep training sessions short. Often several short training sessions will work better than fewer long training sessions. Second, be consistent. If you’re trying to teach your cat to pee inside the litter box, you should “capture” her desired behavior every time you see her go. Third, generalize as much as possible. If you want your cat to claw a scratching post and not your furniture, teach your cat to use scratching posts in different locations and have everyone in your family involved. Fourth, never punish. It might produce short-term results, but over the long run the behavior is unlikely to change. You’ll also risk damaging your relationship with your cat. Finally, try to make training fun. The more fun it is, the more the two of you will look forward it, and the better your bond will be.
Written for The Cat House. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2020.
The Cat House is a no-kill shelter located at 3633 “O” St Lincoln, NE 68510. Open hours (except during the pandemic) are Tuesday and Thursday 6 pm – 8 pm; Sunday 1:30 pm – 4 pm.