From a training perspective, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of a cat’s personality is how bold or timid it is, irrespective of the situation it finds itself in. Some cats are nervous of specific events-fireworks, for example, or unfamiliar people coming to the house-but seem generally relaxed and inquisitive the rest of the time. Although this is also a part of their personality, it is also the result of particular experiences that the cat has had-and therefore a product of learning. Boldness, and its opposite, timidity, can be recognized as more general attitudes toward life: bold cats are just much more inclined to get involved in situations they haven’t encountered before, finding objects new to the household interesting and exciting to explore, while timid cats hang back, finding unfamiliar objects daunting and potentially threatening-they may even run away as soon as they start to feel uncomfortable. This difference will affect which rewards to use in training. For a bold-tempered cat, the opportunity to play with new toys should successfully reinforce certain behaviors, motivating the cat to perform them again, whereas the same new toys may have the opposite effect in a timid cat-for timid cats, rewards should be familiar and therefore “safe.” Of course, these are extremes-most cats fit somewhere in between.
Whether a cat turns out to be generally bold or timid depends partly on how bold or timid its parents were: in other words, there is a genetic component involved. It makes sense that some cats should be fundamentally more timid than others, for no kitten can predict what kind of world it will grow up in. If through bad luck it finds itself in a hazardous environment, a little caution may ensure it survives where a bolder cat would perish: however, if it grows up in a low-risk environment, it will probably lose out to more confident cats that are able to take possession of the available food and other resources more quickly. Thus, over the millennia of the domestic cat’s evolution, natural selection has not weeded out either the genes for boldness or the genes for timidity, because both have been useful in different places and at different times in the past.
Just because boldness and timidity are influenced by genes does not mean that they are fixed for the whole life of the cat. Kittens that are bold when they leave their mothers tend to remain so for the next year or so, likewise kittens that are more timid than the average, but these differences seem to fade during the cat’s second year of life. It is not known whether this is due to the effect of the genes diminishing or because cats change the way they react to the world based on the situations they have encountered, but both probably play a part. This means that there is plenty of scope to use training exercises to make a timid cat more confident or, potentially, to make an overbold cat a little more circumspect, although the latter is less likely to be a problem-to cat and to owner-than the former.
How bold a cat is doesn’t just affect how it reacts when confronted with a novel situation, it also affects how and what it learns. This can start at a very early age. The most timid kitten in the litter is often the one that gets the least handling, because it is easily overlooked in favor of the bolder kittens that are always the first to ask to be picked up and stroked. Although being somewhat timid may have been a valuable survival strategy in the wild, it is generally less useful in the much safer world that most pet kittens are born into. Gentle handling can overcome the immediate effects of timidity, so ideally the mother’s owners will have made sure that every kitten in the litter has received its fair share of handling. If this has not happened, some remedial training may be required after the kitten is homed, to bring it out of its shell (so to speak). Nervous cats can be trained to relax while being stroked, and this may eventually result in stroking becoming rewarding in its own right, broadening the possibilities for further training.
Plenty of gentle handling during the first few months of life can turn a naturally bold kitten into a highly sociable one. Such cats are likely to find social interaction such as gentle praise and stroking rewarding, whereas cats that are very timid of people may perceive such interaction as punishing rather than reinforcing. Likewise, confident cats are likely to learn quickly and therefore need fewer training sessions, while shy or timid cats may need to work at a slower pace, with the training goal broken down into smaller and more achievable steps.
As well as its personality, a cat’s readiness to learn is affected by its mood at the time. It is therefore vitally important to be able to recognize what moods are normal for your cat and also what mood your cat is in at a particular time. For example, some cats are generally difficult to motivate, almost as if they find training boring. If your cat seems lazy and uninterested, progress during training will be near impossible and may reduce both your own and your cat’s enthusiasm for training in the future. At the other end of the spectrum are those cats that are particularly excitable. Training a cat that is overexcited can be as difficult as training one that is disinterested, because the cat spends the majority of the time too focused on trying to get the reward without considering what is the correct behavior to obtain it.
Luckily for us as trainers, and contrary to popular belief, cats give away their moods through their behavior and body language: this enables us to decipher what they may be feeling and to adjust our training to maximize their learning. Cats that are underengaged with a training task often show interest in anything but the trainer and the rewards on offer: they may slowly turn their heads away from you or move away completely. They often appear to want to rest, perhaps flopping slowly onto one side, or may show their disinterest by yawning or falling asleep. They may groom themselves in a rhythmic and systematic manner-note that this is quite different from the short bursts of grooming of just one part of the body that are commonly seen during momentary frustration. However, for those underengaged cats that usually enjoy touch, their relaxed demeanor will mean they are receptive to being stroked.
Luckily, there are a number of things we can do to enhance engagement in training. First, before trying to continue with any training, reassess the environment for distractions and, where possible, remove or minimize such distractions. Then consider increasing the value of your rewards-for example, using tastier food such as freshly cooked meat or fish or a more engaging toy such as a wand with real feathers or fur. Lengthen the gap between your cat’s last food or play session or social interaction (whichever you are using as the reward) before
commencing the next training session, thus creating greater motivation. Furthermore, reducing the difficulty of each step in the progression toward your training goal will allow you to increase the rate of delivery of rewards-and more frequent rewards will help keep your cat motivated. You can also add more variety to the rewards on offer by changing the type, size and delivery of reward often-for example, for one correct behavior reward with a piece of ham, for the next, the reward can be play with a feather, the next can be three high-quality cat treats scattered on the floor for the cat to scavenge, and so on. Scattering also encourages movement that can motivate a cat to stay focused.
If your cat really isn’t interested in learning one particular behavior, try training a different behavior-perhaps a behavior that is more exciting and fun, an action that your cat already performs spontaneously, or something that involves movement and physical contact with you-for example, touching your hand with his nose or paw. Once you have gained his attention, you may find you can then move back to your desired training task. Try to always make yourself the most interesting thing in the room: move around, be animated and use your voice to engage the cat. Finally, avoid too much repetition of the same actions and keep training sessions short-leaving your cat wanting more will always help to maintain engagement over the long term.
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All photos from Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash