It used to be believed that cats can’t be trained like dogs can. Whether it’s because they’re "less domesticated" than dogs or more independent and aloof than dogs, this has been a common belief for years. However, more and more people are discovering that, not only can cats be trained, but they can actually be trained using the same techniques used to train dogs.
The Basics of Operant Conditioning
B. F. Skinner was a psychology researcher in the early 20th century and is often regarded as the father of operant conditioning. He proposed that people, and the animals that he researched, learned based on four different principles: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Often abbreviated as R+ in training circles, positive reinforcement is when something desirable comes about as a result of a behavior. "Positive" refers to the addition of something and "reward" refers to that addition being desirable, thus reinforcing the behavior. For example, giving a cat praise and treats for coming when called or going to a designated mat or area when asked.
Positive reinforcement is a way to reinforce specific behavior when given a cue (sometimes called command). It’s a way for you to say, "Yes! When I give this cue I want you to do that!" and to encourage that with an enjoyable reward such as a treat, praise, or affection.
This one can be trickier for some to understand but just remember that "negative" refers to something being taken away and "reinforcement" refers to that reinforcing the behavior. This tactic isn’t utilized as much in pet training but in people, like buckling your seat belt to get the seat belt alarm to stop beeping. The alarm stopping reinforces you buckling your seat belt. So instead of getting something fun like a reward for doing the behavior, the desired outcome is stopping something bothersome, such as the annoying sound of the alarm.
This principle is a hot topic in pet training. Again, "positive" refers to the addition of something while "punishment" this time refers to it not reinforcing the behavior. In pet training, these punishments are often called aversives and can be a stern voice telling them "No," a tug on a choke chain, or using a shock collar (sometimes called e-collars, electric collars, or correction collars). For cats, this might be a spritz with a water bottle or the sound of tin foil where you don’t want them to be.
The issue that some trainers and behaviorists have with this method of training is that it doesn’t tell your pet what you want them to do but only that they are doing something wrong. While there are "balanced" trainers that will utilize both positive reinforcement and positive punishment, proponents of using only positive reinforcement training techniques argue that positive punishment causes unnecessary stress. These techniques can also lead to pets being more fearful and avoidant of interactions with people.
This, similar to the negative reinforcement principle, is one that’s not utilized as much in pet training. "Negative" refers to something being taken away and "punishment" refers to it not reinforcing the behavior. In parenting, this could be taking away a toy or device when your child is misbehaving. With pets, this is sometimes used to discourage behaviors like jumping or biting. For example, if your dog or cat is jumping on you when you come home, you can turn around and ignore them until they calm down. This takes away your attention and ends the game. When they greet you calmly, they are rewarded with your praise and attention, which is a positive reinforcement of the desired behavior.
How to Use Operant Conditioning
So now that all this talk about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment makes a little more sense, let’s discuss how to put them into practice. There are various techniques, most utilizing positive reinforcement, to teach your cat how to behave at home. One very useful technique involves clicker training as a way to teach many different cues.
This is a common training method in dogs as well. The sound of the clicker is paired with a reward, such as verbal praise or a treat. This enables you to reward your pet the second they do the correct behavior. You can use a clicker made specifically for clicker training or the sound of your tongue clicking. Clicker training can be used in conjunction with other training techniques, such as targeting, stationing, and capturing. It can also be used to desensitize cats to being brushed, having their nails trimmed, etc.
This method of training rewards your cat for touching their nose or head on a target, such as your finger or a targeting stick. Oftentimes the sound of a clicker is used to reinforce the targeting behavior. Targeting can have practical implications when at the vet office as you can cue your cat to target onto the exam table.
This is similar to targeting in that you are giving your cat a cue to come to a specific spot. In this instance, instead of pressing their nose on a target, you are asking your cat to come to a designated mat, blanket, carrier, etc. Similar to targeting, the sound of a clicker is used to reinforce the stationing. Stationing has practical implications when you need to medicate your cat, prompting your cat to sit or stand in a spot easy for you to then dispense medications. It can also be used when guests are over and your cat is getting overstimulated with all the excitement.
This method of training is a little more advanced than targeting and stationing. Unlike targeting and stationing, you aren't giving your cat any cue but rather are reinforcing a behavior when your cat does it of their own accord. You can capture various behaviors, one being getting into the carrier by first clicking (rewarding) them showing interest in the carrier, then progressively hold the click. So, once your cat figures out interest in the carrier gets them a reward, wait for them to put their head or a paw inside. Then wait for two paws. Continue upping what you will click for until your cat walks into the carrier.
The idea that cats are untrainable is simply not true. Cats can be trained and they can be trained using the same methods one would use to train a dog, with positive reinforcement preferred. Training your cat can have practical uses, making getting into the carrier and vet visits less stressful and making medication administration less of a chore. It can also increase the bond you have with your cat.
Vieira de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Morello GM, Pastur S, de Sousa L, Olsson IAS. Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLoS One. 2020;15(12):e0225023.