Did you happen to read in the New York Times that a doting pet owner with a border collie happened to be able to teach his dog to recognize and act appropriately to more than 1000 words? Of course the extent of that vocabulary does astonish everyone. The very fact that a dog can be trained to do all kinds of things and recognize words isn’t surprising though. Everyone’s dog does that. The only pet training question that remains to be answered is – why can’t you get your cute cat to do something like it?
Is it impossible to get a cat to do anything? Not really. Cats certainly can be a little more stubborn in their resistance to learning. But it can be done. Cats have been with us for close to nine or ten millennia; they were domesticated by humans because humans needed them to be able to hunt bothersome rats and mice with. That’s what they were selected, bred and trained for. Hunting qualities were what made cats desirable around humans. No one in particular in the beginning domesticated cats for how cute and furry they were. If they had thought it back then, they would have selected cats that were friendly in addition to being good mouse catchers. Dogs on the other hand were selected for their friendliness and for their sociable nature. So we ended up with dogs that were friendly and responsive, and cats that were good hunters and quite unresponsive. But you still can work with them against their nature.
You’ll have to think outside the box a little bit when you train a cat. Successful pet training is all about recognizing what kinds of rewards different animals respond to. While for instance, pet training a dog, you’d be happy to treat the animal to a nice encouraging pat and a couple of encouraging words, cats don’t really care for that stuff. They will do your bidding only for food. And then, they won’t be that happy doing it. Cats can be trained to use the toilet bowl, come to heel and follow on order, and even slap the palm of your hand with a paw. And some of the same pet training philosophies will work for both: clicker training, positive reinforcement and so on.
If pet training really works with cats, why aren’t we seeing more trained cats around? It’s because people don’t generally mind it when cats don’t behave. A dog, a large powerful animal, can be quite a bother if it doesn’t learn how to be around people. A cat is small and it tends to be a quiet animal. The most it can do is wake up really early and demand breakfast. The kind of things a cat does – how bad can it be?
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