Get ready for action! (part 2)

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Creating the ideal learning environment is vital for training success for all types of cats, as Sarah explains.

In our first cat training feature, we looked at the different ways in which cats learn. They learn to associate events together in ways that lead to one event predicting another - for example, opening the food cupboard predicts dinner is on its way and switching on the bedside light predicts it's time for bed.

They also learn that different behaviours lead to different consequences; some that are nice (such as food) and some that are not so nice (pleasant stroking coming to an end). Finally, they learn from watching other cats, although this is most noticeable when they are kittens learning from their mothers.

If you are to start influencing what your cat learns in order to improve their care, there are two really important things to consider before we look at the tools you'll need to train them:

1. Creating the optimum learning environment

Cats learn best when they are not feeling stressed. Thus, making sure the environment is as stress-free as possible is a must before you start thinking about teaching your cat any task. A quiet place in your house that both you and your cat are comfortable and familiar with is the best starting point. If the environment is new, such as a room your cat normally doesn't go in very much, your cat may feel unsure and thus a bit inhibited and less able to learn efficiently, or he may be more interested in exploring the room. Try to avoid locations where people may be coming and going, and ensure mobile phones are on silent and the washing machine is off, for example! 

If you have more than one cat and they are happy to be separated, it may be a good idea to settle the cat you will not be working with in a comfortable place with some food treats to prevent one cat distracting another! The cat separated from you is also learning it is not such a bad thing as the consequence of separation is a cosy resting place and some nice food treats! The learning environment should always be a place where your cat has everything he needs to feel comfortable. This will include fresh drinking water, a litter tray if he usually uses one, and somewhere comfy to rest.

It is critically important that you never make the cat stay in this place nor to take part if he shows signs that he does not want to. Training is about tapping into 'wanting to learn' and is never about 'forcing to learn'.

2. Considering your own cat's learning requirements

There are elements about your cat that you'll need to bear in mind before you start to train, such as how old he is, his temperament type and what type of experiences he has had. These are all considerations to be taken into account when training a task as they will influence the best way to train something.

For example, imagine the scenario where you wish to teach that the cat carrier is a positive place to be, with the result that he will enter the carrier voluntarily and find it pleasant. For a confident, food-motivated kitten with no prior experience of the carrier, such learning may occur quickly through the use of food treats and toys being placed near and in the carrier.

Exploring the carrier therefore ends up with a positive consequence of a food treat or toy to play with for the kitten - a good example of operant conditioning. The behaviour of going in the carrier voluntarily is therefore likely to happen again.

However, consider an elderly cat that does not like the cat carrier, has been pushed into it many times in his life, is a bit arthritic and as a result finds the small carrier quite uncomfortable. In addition, he is quite a fussy eater and is no longer particularly food-motivated. In this situation, learning that the carrier is now a positive place may take many more sessions over a longer period of time as the negative association towards the carrier has to be undone before the cat can learn it can be a positive place.

Furthermore, utilising food as a positive consequence for behaviour when teaching this cat is not likely to be overly rewarding and consequently, not of much use. Therefore, other things the cat likes need to be explored - for example, placing a blanket-covered hot water bottle in the carrier as a cosy resting place for the elderly cat.

Finally, purchasing a new, larger, more comfortable carrier (which the cat has no previous experience of) would also be a good starting place for training. Although both the cat and the kitten learn to enter the cat carrier voluntarily in the same way, there are special individual considerations which need to be made for each animal to enhance training success and ensure each cat's needs are met.

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Preferences

Food is often the most reinforcing reward for your cat and is frequently used successfully in training to reinforce desired behaviours, and encourage the cat to perform the behaviour again. The type of food used as a reward will vary from cat to cat. Some find a little of their normal food (such as a quarter of a teaspoon of wet food) or a biscuit from their normal food very exciting and satisfying and therefore a 'treat', while others may need tempting with something a bit more special.

Small pieces of chicken, prawn or tuna are often appealing and often better than commercial treats as they can be broken up easily into small pieces. We do not want to overfeed our cats and only the smallest amount is needed to be given at a time as the cat will receive many food rewards in one training session.

Since cats may be gaining extra food due to these new learning experiences, the amount of food they receive at other times should be adjusted to ensure your cat still receives the right dietary intake (if you are at all unsure how much to give your cat, it is best to ask your vet).

Some cats are not particularly food-orientated and other 'rewards' need to be discovered. This might be access to a game with their favourite toy, a scratch under the chin or a stroke on the head, and for others it might even be an opportunity to rub against a grooming brush.

Discover what your cat likes and write a list. To see what your cat likes best, you can set up simple preference tests (see online video below on preference testing for food and appropriate play with your cat using toys as a reward). As we will find out later in the series, changing the reward or alternating between several is an effective training tool.

So, there are many areas that need consideration before you begin training with your cat. Familiarising yourself with these and finding out what is a positive reward for your cat will result in more effective and positive learning sessions for you both.

Special considerations

Here are some things to think about to help highlight any special training considerations you may need to make:

Your cat's age

Training sessions generally maximise learning if they are short and frequent. However, both kittens and elderly cats are more likely to tire quicker and so sessions should be even shorter for them.

Health

A poorly cat may not be as motivated to learn and should be allowed to recover before commencing training again. Certain ongoing health issues may need special consideration. For example, if your cat has dietary sensitivities, you must ensure the food rewards will not upset his stomach (even if he does like them!).

Temperament

Just like personality in people, cats can be described by their temperament and every cat is unique in his particular behaviours. Cats vary in their likes, dislikes and characteristics. For example, some are confident and some shy or timid, some are laid-back and others highly strung or easily aroused, some love to be around people and others prefer just those they know well. In between these extremes are many other cats who sit somewhere in the middle.

It is important to know your own cat's temperament as this can greatly help setting up a learning environment that is ideal for him and promotes his learning in the best way possible. For example, confident cats may find new things interesting and exciting to explore, while shy cats may find them daunting and potentially threatening.

Past experience

A cat's previous experiences are likely to influence his present behaviour. This is particularly true for more sensitive cats. Previous negative experiences should be noted to ensure the cat is not put in a situation that further emphasises these. For a cat adopted from a rescue centre, whose background is unlikely to be known, you'll need to be careful with experiences that are new to him in your home.