In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.
We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.
Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.
Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.
It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.
Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.
Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.