It’s a commonly held belief that cats just can’t be trained like dogs can. Cats are independent and stubborn and there’s just no way they’d “give in” to what we humans want them to do. Right? Wrong! Cats absolutely can be trained if you understand them. Don’t believe me? Read on to see if I can change your mind.
Cats Can Learn, So They Can Be Taught
Training is just teaching. You can teach anything that can learn. So, to be trainable, your cat just needs the ability to learn. Good news! Basic survival requires the ability to learn – to learn how to find food, water, and mates and to avoid danger. That same ability to learn also lets your cat learn how to get you to pet them (or stop), play with them, and feed them. You can probably think of many things your cat has learned about life with you.
Our Training Often Misses the Mark
So, if cats can learn and thus can be taught, why do cats often seem un-trainable?
The answer typically comes down to our training methods. Like other animals (humans included), cats learn to do things that earn them desirable (to them) consequences and avoid behavior that leads to undesirable consequences. They will also seek situations that make them feel good and avoid those that make them feel uncomfortable, nervous, or fearful. All of this is defined by how the cat feels about the consequence or feeling, not our human opinions.
The Problem With Punishment
Effective punishment is much harder to do than you might assume. All too often, cat owners get caught in a loop of trying to punish the same behavior over and over forever, without much change. I write more about this cycle in my post asking “Is Your Spray Bottle Working?”.
Punishment carries a risk of causing fear and aggression. This shouldn’t be taken lightly. But perhaps more important to a frustrated cat owner is that punishment often doesn’t work as well, or as fast, as a reinforcement-based training approach. The main reasons attempts at punishment fail are:
- It is just interrupting the behavior, instead of making the behavior less frequent. The cat simply goes back to the problem behavior later.
- Inconsistent punishment teaches the cat to be naughty behind their person’s back and when the punishment tool (like that spray bottle) isn’t nearby.
- Sometimes the “punishment” isn’t punishing. If the cat doesn’t care about your scolding or thinks a squirt of water is fun, you aren’t going to stop the problem behavior.
Make It Worth Their Effort
The second reason our training may not yield the desired results is that the cat isn’t motivated.
To motivate your cat you need to use what they want at that moment. This could be play, food, attention, or being left alone. Your cat’s motivators might be different than what you think they “should” want but it’s more effective to listen to them and get creative when needed. Make sure your cat is getting something they want for their efforts.
Treats can be a really powerful and easy to use motivator. If you think your cat isn’t food motivated, consider the reasons why in this post.
Training is a Journey
Training your cat requires patience and repetition. This isn’t because cats are particularly difficult to train. Think about the last time you learned a new skill or tried to change a long-held habit. It didn’t happen overnight and it likely required dedicated practice and effort. Your cat is no different.
Most cats learn best in short sessions and with time to think about the situation. They don’t do well when forced to do things. Break down your training goals into small steps, practice in brief but frequent sessions, reward a lot, and celebrate progress!
Expectations For Training Your Cat
How you approach training your cat or modifying their behavior will have a big impact on whether you’re successful. Cats aren’t mind readers; they can’t change just because you’ve decided they should. They have needs and minds of their own and will prioritize those in their decision making. That isn’t a flaw, it’s how we all are.
If you want to train your cat:
- Understand Their Needs: They can’t be their best selves without having their basic needs met.
- Motivate Them: Cats can absolutely change but won’t do it purely because you’ve decided they should. Pay close attention to what they want, rather than what you think they should want.
- Be Consistent and Be Fair: It will be harder for your cat to understand what you want if their behavior gets rewarded sometimes but not others, or punished sometimes but not all the time. It also isn’t fair to suddenly switch from allowing or ignoring a behavior to punishing it.
- Give It Time. No one changes overnight, especially cats who can’t understand why you’ve decided that they should. The longer your cat has been doing a certain behavior, the slower it will change. The stronger your cat’s emotions about something, the more time they will need to change them.
It’s Not a Joke, You CAN Train Your Cat
Cats are trainable, when we take the time to do it. Too often we focus on trying to punish (create negative consequences for) behavior we don’t like, without taking time to consider what we want the cat to do instead. We forget to provide clear, desirable consequences for the behaviors we want. We neglect to understand a cat’s needs and the motivation for their behavior. And we expect our cats to magically understand what we want with little to no time spent on training.
If you avoid these mistakes, you’ll find your cat’s behavior improves and life becomes more enjoyable. And you’ll have the best trained cat on the block!
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.