Positive reinforcement: training your cat
We all like to be praised rather than punished. The same is true for your cat, and that’s the theory behind positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means giving your pet something pleasant or rewarding immediately after she does something you want her to do. Because your praise or reward makes her more likely to repeat that behavior in the future, it is one of your most powerful tools for shaping or changing your cat’s behavior. It’s more effective to teach your pet what she should do than try to teach her what she shouldn’t.
Correct timing is essential when using positive reinforcement. The reward must occur immediately — within seconds — or your cat may not associate it with the proper action. For example, when your cat uses her scratching post, you can throw a piece of dry cat food for her to chase as a reward. Many cats enjoy chasing (hunting) their food and it’s good exercise too. But if you throw the food when she has stopped scratching the post and is walking toward you, she will think she’s being rewarded for coming to you. Consistency is also an important element in training. Everyone in the family should reward the same desired behaviors.
Using positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement may include food treats, praise, petting, or a favorite toy or game. When your pet is first learning a new behavior, such as clawing the scratching post instead of your couch, she should be rewarded every time you catch her using her scratching post. You may even help shape her behavior of using the scratching post by spraying it with catnip (if she reacts positively to catnip) or enticing her with a toy that you dangle on the post. Taking your cat over to the scratching post, positioning her paws on the post, and raking them along the post to show her what she’s supposed to do will likely have the opposite effect of encouraging her to use the post. She may interpret your actions as frightening and uncomfortable. It’s important to look at the world from her point of view.
Once your cat reliably offers the desired behavior, you may reward her with treats intermittently, for example, three out of every four times she does the behavior. Then, over time, reward her about half the time, then about a third of the time, and so on, until you’re only rewarding her occasionally with a treat. Continue to praise her every time. Your cat will learn that if she keeps offering desired behaviors, eventually she’ll get what she wants—your praise and an occasional treat. You won’t be forever bound to carry a pocketful of goodies, but it’s fun to surprise your cat from time to time.
The pros and cons of punishment
Punishment can be verbal, postural, or physical and is meant to make your pet immediately associate something unpleasant when she does something you don’t want her to do. The punishment makes it less likely that the behavior will occur again. To be effective, punishment must be delivered while your pet is engaged in the undesirable behavior—in other words, “caught in the act.” If the punishment is delivered too late, even seconds later, your pet will not associate the punishment with the undesired behavior. The punishment will seem unpredictable to her.
Remember, cats do not act out of spite or revenge, and they don’t have a moral sense of right and wrong. Never use physical punishment that involves discomfort or pain as this may cause her to bite, defend herself, or resort to other undesirable behaviors. Holding your cat’s neck skin and shaking her may result in a frightened cat who scratches or bites to defend herself. And punishment might be associated with other stimuli, including people, that are present at the time the punishment occurs. For example, a cat who is punished for getting too close to a new baby may become fearful of, or aggressive toward, that baby—or toward other babies. That’s why physical punishment is not only bad for your cat, it’s also bad for you and others.
Punishment delivered by you may erode your cat’s trust and frighten her. That’s why punishment is most effective when it does not come directly from you. For example, if your cat enjoys scratching the couch, you may apply special double sided tape to those surfaces. Cats rarely like sticky paws. Your cat will perceive the couch, instead of you, as delivering the punishment. In this way, too, your cat is more likely to avoid the undesirable behavior when you’re not around. However, it is critical that while discouraging undesirable behaviors, you help your cat understand what you want her to do and provide appropriate outlets for her normal cat behaviors.
One of the reasons that cats are such fun companions is that when they’re not sleeping, many of them enjoy playing. Playing helps your cat to develop physically and behaviorally. Providing appropriate play outlets for your cat can reduce undesirable behaviors. Be sure your cat has safe toys to play with by herself, and don’t underestimate the power of playing with your cat to strengthen the bond between you and enhance the quality of life for both of you.