I recently got a new couch, which was a major event for two reasons: first, my husband and I are not big shoppers, so finding a couch that we both agreed on and then purchased was a low-level marital milestone. Go us. And then there was the cat factor.

While I regularly trim our cat’s nails, he is still a cat, which means scratching and stretching are part of what he must do to maintain membership in the Felis catus clan. As the couch-arrival-date neared, my anxiety grew. I started thinking of the couch as a ticking time bomb that would enter the house a pristine beauty, and within days, turn into a tattered, torn and shredded mess, a cat’s delight. Was there any stopping this cat-meets-couch love affair? What were we thinking bringing a new couch into a house with a cat? We should just sit on the floor.

Before wading too far into the deep end — as I am wont to do — a wave of reason returned: the couch was not our enemy. Josh (the cat) and I were better than this, and together we could take on the couch and both be happy.

The Day of The Couch arrived. It was everything we had hoped for — a new couch in our New York City apartment sans bed bugs or prior contamination. Enter Josh. He gave the couch a once-over, had a good sniff, rubbed against it, and then turned his attention to its affiliated cardboard boxes. Catastrophe averted? I wasn’t about to wait and find out.

In anticipation, I’d already positioned a tall, sturdy scratching post in a prominent location next to where the couch would go, and Josh had already used it. Now, I walked over to the scratching post and tapped and lightly scratched the top of it. Josh responded by prancing over, tail up and giving the post a full-extension, deep, hard, scratch, really getting his nails in there. When he was done, I plopped down a big wad of his favorite wet food. Oh look! Scratching the post (not the couch) not only feels good, but it also results in what you consider to be some of the best stuff on earth. We continued to work the program. Knowing that cats like to scratch just after a nap or a snack, I made sure to be there to dole out the goodies. Whether he ever considered scratching the couch, I’ll never know. Months later, I still keep it up, intermittently giving him food when he scratches the post. 

Where the magic happened, Julie Hecht

Nobody bats an eye if you talk about dog training, but mention cat training one time and the couch delivery guys give you a look and refuse your offer of a glass of water (obviously spiked with a crazy cat training potion). The perception that cats are untrainable is false, and it can hinder happy unions between cats and their people. Dogs and cats learn every day, and through training, we can harness the associations they make — even explicitly create associations — and improve lives. In my case, we get a scratch-free couch, and Josh gets a rewarding scratching experience with a special something at the end. 

Training can be added to just about anything a cat does: going into a carrier, jumping up (or down), coming when called, learning that new people at the house aren’t bad, the list goes on. Cat training isn’t necessarily intuitive, and I eagerly await The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat  out in September 2016 and available for pre-order — by Drs. John Bradshaw (@petsandus) and Sarah Ellis (@sarahlhellis), experts in cat behavior, cognition, and anthrozoology.

Training dogs, cats, or any other animal is not to be taken lightly. Not all approaches or techniques are equal — some could increase fear, aggression, or anxiety, as discussed here, while others focus on good consequences or making pleasant associations. This is not advocating an all-or-nothing approach to training, but nowadays, professionals consider potential effects or outcomes of the training techniques themselves. For example, Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy, described here and here by Eileen Anderson, helps trainers consider which approach to use when working to change a behavior. Even in the most dire of situations, like at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center, fearful and under-socialized dogs learn to come out of their shells and enjoy life as a result of classical and operant conditioning procedures, which I covered here.

At its core, training is about creating a shared language and hopefully making the world more understandable, manageable and safe for our non-human friends.

Two more things before I let you go:

  1. Your turn: Can you name the type of training I used with Josh and the scratching post? Extra credit if you can also give an example of how you would use this training with a dog.
  2. A community: This post is part of a 'Train for Rewards Blog Party’ #Train4Rewards started by Dr. Zazie Todd of Companion Animal Psychology. Great idea! On Thursday, June 16 head over to her blog for all participating posts.

Want more? My go-to animal learning book is Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Dr. Pamela Reid. Find cat training resources here, and dog training resources here. Looking for someone to help with training or behavior modification? Check out APDTCAABDACVBIAABC, or KPA. Finally, Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer: Getting the Best for You and Your Dog by Katenna Jones helps you decide who you should listen to or hire and what methods are best for you and your dog.

Thanks to Mikel Delgado for feedback on this post!