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Success in Training Cats: How to train your cat in a positive manner

How to train your cat

Are you looking for positive way to stop unwanted behavior in your cat? A veterinarian explains how to train your cat positively. You can effectively train your cat without a water bottle, shaker can or any other aversive method. Cats respond quite well to positive reinforcement just as any other animal does. Learn a simple effective way of positively training cats to come to you and how to use that as a positively reinforced interrupter cue with unwanted behavior.

Why Not Use An Aversive To Train Cats?

First what is an aversive? An “aversive” is some unpleasant or punishing stimulus that is used to suppress or diminish an unwanted behavior. So in the world of training cats that tends to mean: Squirting with a water bottle, using a shaker can, making a very loud startling noise, yelling “No”, throwing things across the room, stomping feet as you head toward them, etc.

Suppressing a behavior does not actually teach the animal what is desired in the long term, and so tends to result in only a temporary ‘fix’. A temporary Band-Aid requires the constant need for the aversive to be reapplied and usually results in a return of the unwanted behavior as soon as the aversive is no longer around.

Furthermore, one of the most common fallout effects of aversive methods in training cats are escape and avoidance-related behaviors. These are behaviors that the animal performs in order to avoid the person using the punisher or to avoid the unpleasant punishment. For instance, if the cat chooses to avoid your presence in the room while scratching the furniture then their avoidance behavior still allows for the undesired problem to occur AND makes it harder for you to train them positively in what you want them to do instead.

Most people consider cats hard to train.  They can be for many people because cats are SUPER persistent when they want something.  Terriers are too.  Cats are often even more iron willed and focused at times that the mightiest of independently minded terriers! YOU have to be very consistent AND very persistent to win a war of will with a cat. So if you cannot be present to apply your aversive routinely EVERY time an unwanted behavior occurs then they ‘win’. That means they continue with the behavior that they chose to start. They already have motivation to continue this behavior because it was what they naturally wanted to do on their own! 

In addition, cats are fast, and cats LOVE a good game of chase. A huge amount of their play with one another involves walking up to another cat or thing and acting in a manner (usually mild attack) to try and induce motion and chase and FUN. That means it takes all of about 3 seconds for the average cat to work out that purposefully starting an unwanted behavior starts the clock on a really awesome interactive game! One that provides them instant self initiated rewarded. How you ask??!!

The cat walks over to the couch and raises up to grab with their claws which gets your attention (Oh yay, the game is on, maybe), you stand up (motion induced!! YAY!! Reward!), you grab the spray bottle (more motion and clear sign chase is about to happen. YAY!!! MORE Reward!), and you start moving toward them, (chase successfully initiated, YAY YAY YAY!! Major reward delivered in a huge way). This was instantly self rewarding behavior for a bored cat. Instantly self rewarding behavior is more often than not, repeated.

They will generally cast a look your way as they start this whole process. Not because they know the behavior is wrong. That is a typical bad assumption on your part. Rather, they know it seems to start their favorite motion and chase game, and they are watching like a hawk to time their initial escape run down the hall in the chase portion of this fabulous self initiated reward game! So that concludes one part of why aversives tend not to work well long term in training cats. Unless you are willing to steadily increase the unpleasantness of the aversive used – and that opens an entirely different can of worms.

The other behavioral issue with aversives and training cats is, that you can easily create negative associations with you as the wielder of the punishment. Cats have very long, elephant-like memories for really bad experiences. So this can damage your bond with them quite easily. Also you can create arousal and anxiety using aversives, especially with sensitive cats. Aroused amped up cats can and often will redirect that energy burst onto other creatures – and cats have both teeth and claws which they are not ever afraid to use as a rule. 

Why not just yell no or squirt them with a water bottle?  It works, many say.  See the above discussion again, and I will elaborate more for learning purposes.  First, saying “no” means nothing if there is only a word spoken out of nowhere without training a desired response to this spoken word. Funniest thing in the world is to watch people arrive in the vet’s office with a new puppy and constantly tell it ‘no’ or even ‘sit’ all the time.  As if it was born magically knowing what ‘no’, or even ‘sit’ means.  To quote a funny commercial in the USA, “That’s not how this works…That’s now how any of this works!”  

You can certainly figure out how to train your cat to understand that “No” spoken at the same time as the use of an aversive punishment or association (like a yell, or a water squirt, or loud noise) means they better run away. But “No” trained via aversive associations does tend to cause agitation in cats even when used later on without the aversive method.

If taught “No” along with a water bottle squirt, the cat will almost always clearly have an arousal response of some sort when you later say NO loudly even with no water bottle in hand. Watch their ears twitch and their eyes dilate. Usually that is not a major issue, BUT some aroused cats will redirect and aggressively attack either another cat in the house or an innocent human bystander.  THAT is definitely to be avoided if you can.  Additionally, an agitated cat is also a lot harder to calmly redirect onto a different activity. 

So if not Aversives then how to train your cat?

You teach a your cat to come to you when called and then use that positive reward associated cue as an interrupter cue. A positive interrupter is a much better tool because it is safer and honestly, it is way more effective to help you with the other important part of behavior modification efforts = redirection and teaching acceptable behavior replacements.

You should not just end with stopping or suppressing an unwanted behavior in training cats or dogs.  Part of successfully learning how to train your cat is learning how to reinforce what is ok and allowed for the cat to do in place of the unwanted behavior. That means that you have to determine what they are gaining from the undesired behavior so that you can provide a similar more acceptable outlet.

If you run around saying ‘no’ 30 times a day when training cats, dogs, or kids you will rapidly find you are left with a creature that just keeps on trying until that one time that you give up and do not say no. When training cats, even if you squirt them with a water bottle at the same time you say NO, then all the cat really learns is = to ignore that word AND the water bottle.  And that is about it. 

If you have a really predatory play cat, and all you do is squirt them with water, then they tend to decide that this is actual game and one they can win. They only need to attack faster and harder.  Obviously this was not what you were hoping to accomplish when you tried to figure out how to train your cat!

Now that the idea behind why your interrupter cue should be positive is more clear – how do you accomplish it?? 

How to train your cat to respond to a Positive Interrupter Cue

Choose a word or sound you will not likely use routinely. So you could say “beep beep beep”, for instance. The word chosen does not matter and is entirely up to you. I tend to prefer a repeated single word for an interrupter or recall command because you are usually using the cue when they are focused on something you need to interrupt – so chances are you are going to need to repeat yourself anyway 😉.

Next – figure out what little treat they think is totally amazing. Not a so-so treat.  To successfully create an interrupter cue when training cats the treat needs to be AWESOME.  Recall we are trying to break them away from a focused activity they actively chose to engage in on their own.  They like or need that activity in some way or they would not be interested in doing it! That means we need to create this cue using a screamingly awesome magnificent treat as a reward.

You will have to do some research on what sort of treat your individual cat desires while preparing to learn how to train your cat. Maybe its Temptations, maybe its dried tuna flakes, maybe its little pieces of pouched tuna, or pieces of canned mackerel or sardines, maybe pieces of cooked chicken. To work on training cats, you have to take the time to figure out what makes your individual cat go “WOW” and stop to come get some of that!

Then practice often saying “beep beep beep” (or whatever your cue word is) – as you provide them the grand treat when they are nearby. Do it often. Rinse and repeat.  But just this at first.  After they seem to really grasp it and respond quickly to hearing the verbal cue by coming over for the treat, then practice saying it when they are mildly occupied with something a small distance from you. When they come, immediately give them the treat. Rinse and repeat that often.

Soon – ‘beep beep beep’ can be used as “verbal recall” cue get them to come over to you and/or act as a really strong positively reinforced interrupter cue to get their attention and ask them to come away from <whatever undesired behavior> and over to you.   This cue was positively reinforced NOT aversively associated, so your new positive interrupter cue does not leave you with an agitated cat ready to jump on someone or something!  YAY!

So how do you use it exactly when learning how to train your cat? 

How to Use Your New Positive Interrupter Cue:

  1. How to keep cats from scratching furniture? Or how to keep cats from scratching couch?
    • Now after all this practice – say “beep beep beep”, repeat the verbal cue if needed. Watch them stop and come over for a treat. Treat liberally with the fabulous treat when they do.
    • Important: Then go ahead and redirect them to something else to do entirely – pitch out some new toys that you know they love or start up some interactive game with them. Or get up and redirect them to the appropriate scratching posts you have made available.
    • For more information on ways to redirect them to better behaviors, see our articles on The concepts in choosing the best cat scratching posts, and how to maintain a great enrichment plan for your cats.
  2. Are they playing too rough with one another?
    • Say “beep beep beep”. Toss some treats out if you are nearby. If they don’t refocus on their own automatically then repeat the verbal cue and get them to come over to you.
    • Important: Take the time then to offer up some interactive play with a toy that IS appropriate for them to hunt and attack rather than focusing that energy on one another. If you do not have time then make sure you have access to toys that will intrigue them to be put down and hold their attention.
  3. Are they stalking you or the dog or someone else across the room getting ready to pounce?
    • Say BEEP BEEP BEEP. Toss some treats out if you are nearby. Say it again and get them to come over if they don’t refocus. Then engage them in some interactive play!
  4. Are you in the other room and hear them doing something they should not?
    • Say ‘beep beep beep’ loud enough that they can hear you. Chances are they will stop. If they show up where you are, give them a treat for coming as you asked and provide them something else to do.
  5. Wondering how to keep cats off counters without using an aversive?
    • Say ‘beep beep beep’. Chances are they will stop before they jump up. Repeat if needed to get them to hop down and come to you. Give them a treat for coming as you asked. Be consistent about what/where is acceptable and what/where is not when training cats.
    • Important: Then provide them something else to do. Are they after food? Give them a food dispensing toy. Are they after attention from you? Then give them something to do that occupies their mind. Are they after sun or a high perch to watch you being active? Create a new acceptable high spot and redirect them there and treat for using that spot.
  6. Are they attacking you too vigorously in trying to start play? 
    • First, try not to move and wave a hand around (yes this is hard!), because they are trying to instigate motion. That is usually how cats start play with one another = they ‘attack’ one another (usually mildly but often with claws out) to create motion and chase. So instead of yelling and waving a hand around, try going really still and saying “beep beep beep”. 
    • If they redirect attention, then you drop the treat or move immediately into encouraging appropriate play that does NOT involve your body parts! 
    • Keep a pillow nearby if needed to help stop play aggression. If the verbal cue does not redirect their brain, then gently smoosh them off of you and the couch/bed and then redirect them to more appropriate play objects or games.
    • If you need to then set up treats near where they usually ‘attack’ so you have immediate access, and can pitch them away from your body. Then focus on engaging them immediately in very involving play.

After the initial strong positive conditioning of the cue, if strong and consistent enough when training cats, then the treat can become less awesome over time and more intermittent in appearing. You generally will not need a treat every time in the end.  The interactive game/activity/toy may be enough. Effusing over them and petting them, IF they like, that may be enough.  Training cats really can be that easy.

You will likely need to periodically use the verbal cue along with the super fantastic FABULOUS treat off and on for as long as you need the cue to work well (yes maybe for life).

To help with learning how to train your cat we have included two different links below. One is a video that very clearly discusses how to create a recall with treats and using clicker training. The other is an article explaining how to teach a cat to go to a mat or ‘place’. These should help you see how to use the basic idea presented here to mold some behaviors and useful cues for training cats.

Video: Rocket recall cat style

Good luck and we hope this was helpful in understanding how to train your cat.