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4 Steps To Training Your Cat

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Q: How do I train my cat? It's easy to spray my cat or scold him about going where he's not supposed to when I'm home, but I feel like he just does what he wants when I leave. It's not like you can keep them in a crate like a dog. How do I train him so that he doesn't do things like jump on the table or eat the plants?
A: Sometimes, what we initially view as an “easy” way to train a cat will actually backfire because we haven’t addressed the real underlying issue. Many of the training questions that come into our office are the result of owners misinterpreting their cats’ behaviors as bad, deliberate or even spiteful. Cats don’t sit around at night hatching plots to engage in willfully destructive behavior the minute you walk out the door for work. Many of the unwanted behaviors are the result of cats trying to meet necessary needs in the best way they have available to them. Unfortunately, so many owners unintentionally miss the mark when it comes to understanding those needs and how to create an environment that allows both the cats and the human family members to be happy.
Let’s take the example you mentioned about the cat jumping on the table or counter. Although it may look like an inappropriate behavior, it’s actually a normal part of feline life. Cats live in a vertical world and it’s normal for them to want to climb, perch, play and rest on elevated areas. Even for the most pampered indoor cat, it’s a survival instinct because elevated locations provide more visual warning time. So if you don’t want your cat on the table, it’s important to provide other elevated options that are just as appealing.
My approach to training and behavior is to look at what cats need and how to provide that in a way that’s acceptable to the owner AND to the cat. Once you change your mindset from looking at what your cat is doing wrong and instead, look at how you can set your cat up to succeed, training becomes much easier.
Here are the four key steps to successfully training a cat:
1.      Determine the function of the behavior. Figure out what the “pay off” is for the cat in terms of the benefit he receives. Cats are very smart and they don’t repeat behaviors unless they serve a function. Whether kitty is jumping on tables, chewing plants, peeing on the carpet, biting, etc., the behavior is providing a pay-off. Perhaps the cat is peeing on the carpet because he’s experiencing a medical problem or maybe the litter box is too dirty. He might be biting because he has learned it’s the only way to get someone to stop holding him. He may jump on a table because it’s the best way to view the outdoor bird feeder.
The first step in problem solving is to figure out what the cat gets out of the behavior. This requires you to put aside any feelings about motivations being rooted in spite, willful destruction, stupidity or stubbornness. Look at the behavior from the cat’s point of view.
2.      Determine what you want the cat to do instead. Now that may seem really simple but make sure what you want as the alternative behavior is appropriate. For example, if your cat is scratching the furniture and you don’t want him to scratch on anything then that’s not realistic. Cats have a natural need to scratch and it’s a vital part of what makes them feline. So the alternative behavior should be that you want him to scratch on his scratching post.
3.      Make the alternative as good or better than the original behavior. If you don’t want the cat on the table, provide an elevated area that’s even better. If kitty is on the table to see the birds, set up a cat tree by the window. If he’s chewing houseplants, remove them from his reach and then offer some safe kitty greens instead. If the cat is scratching the furniture, provide a tall, sturdy, sisal-covered post that makes the sofa pale in comparison.
4.      Reward the cat for getting it right! Instead of punishing a cat for displaying unwanted behaviors, let’s reward him for displaying desired behaviors. A treat, praise, petting and playtime are valuable tools that should be standard equipment in your behavior modification toolbox.
It summary, it really all comes down to looking at your environment from your cat’s point of view to make sure you understand what he’s communicating by his behavior. Take a positive approach to set your cat up to succeed and you’ll not only be on the road toward solving current behavior problems, you’ll be better equipped to avoid future ones.
Pam Johnson-Bennett bio: Pam Johnson-Bennett is a certified cat behavior consultant and the best-selling author of seven books on cat behavior and training, including her most recent release, the updated and expanded Think Like a Cat (Penguin Books). She is a former board of directors member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and is the founder/former longtime chair of their cat division. She was a member of the American Humane Association’s Advisory Board and is on the Advisory Board of Tree House Humane Society. Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, LLC, a private veterinarian-referred behavior practice in Nashville, TN.
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