Punishment, as a way of disciplining cats, is out. Dogs may stick around for punishment, but cats won’t. Pain or fear will totally poison your relationship with your cat and it is unlikely to understand why pain is being inflicted. Cats avoid danger whenever possible before it happens, so rather than risk punishment from you, your cat may just decide you are not a safe person to be near. It may feel that its home is not a safe place to live in and respond by scent marking with urine or faeces. Or your cat may just pack up and leave a home in order to find a new home without what it considers abusive human behaviour. Only dogs, betrayed by their social instincts, stay around for more punishment by a human.
Your cat (like all animals) will respond much better to rewards than punishment. But to do this, you have to learn what is rewarding to your individual cat. What you think is rewarding is not necessarily what the cat thinks is rewarding. Petting, or tactile contact, is very important to us, but usually less rewarding to a cat. Nor are cats, like dogs, anxious for our approval. Verbal praise will not be motivating. The three most motivating rewards for a cat are:
• Food. The better the food, the greater the reward. Prawns motivate behaviour much more than bits of a cat’s normal diet.
• Attention. Most pet cats enjoy human attention. If you want to encourage behaviour, respond with attention.
• Games. The hunting sequence of eye, stalk and pounce is innately rewarding to all cats. There is also an alternative to punishment – non-reward. Non-reward, as the behaviour experts call it, is a powerful tool for changing animal behaviour. It is not real punishment. No pain is inflicted, only disappointment and frustration. If a cat is expecting a titbit or attention, and does not get it, it will learn to avoid the behaviour that did not get the expected reward. These are three ways of using discouragement as a non-reward.
• Refuse to give the food reward which your cat knows you have ready.
• Refuse to give attention. Ignore your cat – deny all eye contact, stay silent, turn the whole body away or walk out of the room.
• Refuse to play the game. Stop playing it altogether. Take, for an example, the constant yowl of a Siamese cat. Normally humans respond to the cries in several ways. They pick the cat up, they talk back to the cat, or they may even shout a rebuke.
All these responses are human attention and for an attention-seeking cat even a rebuke is a reward. But the cries will be reduced if you never ever give attention when the cat is yowling. If your cat is noisy you should not pick it up, or shout at it, or even look at it. Walk right out of the room or turn your eyes and body away from the noisy animal in active ignoring. To encourage silence pay attention to your cat only when it is silent.
Thus you are using a reward of attention for the cat’s silence and using a nonreward of ignoring the cat for unwanted yowling. In the same way if a rough game is halted, a cat will learn to stop the clawing which has ended the game. Continuing the game would be a reward. Ending the game is a non-reward. So games with sheathed claws can be encouraged by the continuance of the game – a reward. Games with unsheathed claws are terminated – a non-reward. Even so, changing cat behaviour is difficult. The main difficulty lies in the fact that we humans find it difficult to think like cats. We don’t time our rewards or non-rewards correctly. We think a cat understands us far better than it does.
For instance people often say “Bad cat!” in a threatening tone of voice to a cat that is scratching the furniture. From the human point of view this is a punishment. But a confident cat may well think of the rebuke as a reward – it has successfully got its owner’s attention. It stops scratching temporarily because now it has achieved its aim – human attention. But it will scratch again when it wants its human to notice it again. Scratching achieves its aim.
Training a cat to do “tricks” is more difficult than training a dog. It has to be done with rewards because a cat will just walk away if it is punished. It requires human skill and patience. But it can be done and can be very enjoyable particularly for an indoor cat. Your indoor cat will enjoy jumping over an activity course, following a laser light ending in a food reward, offering a paw, sitting up on its hind legs, or lying down. To sum up: there are five golden principles of training a cat.
• Never use physical or verbal punishment. Your cat will start avoiding you. Use non-rewards instead.
• Use rewards that the individual cat desires. Not all cats are motivated by same things.
• Do not ever force, however gently, your cat to do something. Train without touching your cat. Instead set up a situation so that your cat does what you want, then reward it.
• Timing. Your cat must be rewarded within seconds of its performing the desired behaviour – this is tricky. Rewards that come too late are ineffective. Your cat cannot link them with its behaviour.
• Keep training sessions short. Five minutes is enough. Good trainers, usually using clicker techniques, have taught their cats (at home not for public performance) to strum the piano, to open doors or even to meow to music.