Behavior Modification Methods: What They Are and How to Use Them On Your Cats

Cats have a reputation for being independent and difficult to train. Maybe it’s the seemingly blank stare or the twitching tail as they sit and regard you with what you feel is disdain or boredom. The fact is that cats are trainable, as long as you learn to decipher what they want and what they will do–or stop doing–to get it.

Most cats, like dogs, respond to food rewards and will change their behavior in order to get them. It sometimes takes cats longer, and they may need periodic reinforcement. It isn’t that cats are dumb. In fact, they’re very smart and are experts in instinctively manipulating their humans to get what they want.

So would you like to learn about common behavior modification methods that do work? While none of them is a “quick fix” or “silver bullet”, one or all of the following methods may help change behavior in your kitty. 


#1. Habituation

Habituation is the practice of letting repeated or prolonged exposure to a stimulus continue until the cat no longer reacts to it. No reward is involved, and the cat eventually becomes disinterested in the stimulus. The change in behavior is typically long-lasting. Note that if the stimulus is a predator or other perceived danger, the cat’s reaction to it won’t change by habituation, and they will continue to respond as before. Associated with habituation is spontaneous recovery, when the cat reacts negatively to a stimulus they previously ignored if the stimulus has returned after a long period of time. In these cases, the habituation fails and must be re-learned. 

How to Teach Your Cat to Ignore Loud Cars

  • A cat sits in a window and every time a vehicle goes by, they run and hide behind a chair. 
  • Keep the window shades open, and even the window if its safe, and allow the cat to hear the noise again and again. 
  • Don't react to the cars, or try to coax the kitty out or pet them. These reactions only reinforce the cat's belief that the cars represent danger.
  • After a period of time, the cat becomes used to the cars and no longer hides.  


#2. Conditioning

Conditioning is when the cat creates an association between a stimulus and behavior. If you have a food motivated cat, they may have already associated the sound of a spoon tapping their food dish with mealtime, and when they hear it, they will come running to eat. Due to their conditioning to what happens when they hear this sound, they may even come running expectantly when they hear the spoon tapping other dishes in the kitchen. You can use a purposeful stimuli, such as a sound or smell, to condition your cat to expect or elicit a behavior.  

How to Condition Your Cat to Respond to a Clicker

  • You'd like to use a clicker to train your cat.
  • With a bag of treats, click the clicker and toss a treat to your cat.
  • Click again, and toss a treat. Another click, another treat.
  • Eventually, your cat will associate the clicker with threats, and will start to look at the treats in anticipation when they hear the clicker, and you can now use the clicker in other training exercises as a treat association.


#3. Desensitization
Often used for helping cats overcome anxiety and fears, desensitization slowly teaches a cat to tolerate a stimulus or situation by repeated exposure. Often a long process, this method takes a lot of patience on your part, but is high in stress-relieving rewards for your cat. A passive form of desensitization is also known as habituation, while an active form involves you exposing your cat to their fear slowly.

How to Teach Your Cat to Get Over Their Fear of the Doorbell

  • Start by lowering the volume of the doorbell, or putting your cat in a room farthest from the doorbell, then ringing the doorbell. 
  • If they are anxious when they hear the doorbell, try taking them to another floor, closing the door, or muffling the sound as best you can, and try again.
  • If they ignore the doorbell or show no signs of anxiety, move them closer or raise the volume and ring it again.
  • Continue bringing them closer or raising the volume each time, but be prepared to backtrack if the cat shows any signs of anxiety, and start again.
  • Eventually, your cat should be able to be closer or hear the loudest volume of the doorbell without any anxiety.


#4. Counter-Conditioning

Like the previous conditioning, counter-conditioning trains your cat to associate a stimulus with a desired behavior, but in this case, it is trying to change a cat's feelings about a current stimulus-behavior association. Often paired with desensitization, this method can combat anxiety and unwanted behaviors by rewarding the opposite behaviors to help the cat combat their negative feelings. Let's look at the example above with the doorbell. If we add counter-conditioning, it would look like this:

How to Use Counter-Conditioning to Train Your Cat to Ignore the Doorbell

  • Using the example of desensitizing your cat to a doorbell from above, add in counter-conditioning.
  • Whenever your cat ignores the doorbell, give them a treat, thereby rewarding calm behavior.
  • If your cat reacts fearfully to the doorbell, lower the volume or move them further away from the sound and try again. If they are calm when they hear the doorbell, give them a treat, but if they are still anxious, backtrack until they can hear the sound while remaining calm. Give them a treat.
  • Continue treating your cat when they show calm behavior, and withhold the treats during any anxious behaviors while continuing the desensitization until the cat has conquered their fear of the doorbell. 

#5. Extinction

Extinction occurs if a behavior stops when the cat is convinced there will be no reward. To work, this method needs to be consistently applied. Any, even occasional, rewards will reinforce the pattern and start the bad behavior again. Often, with this method, the negative behavior gets worse before it gets better as the cat tries to wait you out. It’s essential that no one give in to their demands; to do so just reinforces the bad behavior. 

How to Use Extinction to Stop Your Cat's Nighttime Yowling

  • Your feline sits next to your bed and yowls during the night for food or attention.
  • Ignore your cat, no matter how loud or aggressive they are.
  • Resist the urge to get up and give them food or attention of any kind, positive or negative.
  • Continue until they give up because they are not getting the desired response from you, and the yowling will cease.


#6. Overlearning

As the name suggests, this method involves continued training in behaviors already learned. This helps to delay the cat forgetting what they’ve already learned, increases the cat’s resistance to extinction, and increases the chances of the learned behavior becoming an automatic response. Like flash cards to study for a test, overlearning is a continued practice to keep desired behaviors in your cat's mind and in place. 

How to Train Your Cat to Continue Desired Behaviors

  • If your cat is prone to anxiety caused by a certain stimulus, using a method such as counter-conditioning can change a negative association with the stimulus to a positive one.
  • Once your cat's anxiety for that stimulus decreases, keep reinforcing the positive associations by continuing the same training.
  • Eventually, overlearning can transfer the positive response to other anxiety-causing stimuli. 
#7. Reinforcement

Most people are familiar with the concepts of positive vs negative reinforcement. These methods are used to increase the chance a behavior will be repeated. There must be a positive outcome for the cat in response to either type of reinforcement. A negative reinforcement is not a punishment, but rather an unpleasant deterrent that stops the behavior.

    How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Cat

    • When training your cat to come when called, give them treat rewards when they come.
    • Knowing they get treats encourages the cat to come at your command.

    How to Use Negative Reinforcement to Curb Undesired Behaviors

    • Your cat is scratching on furniture.
    • Use a deterrent, such as double-stick tape on areas of the furniture they are scratching. 
    • Your cat won't like the feel of it on their paws, and will stop scratching those areas. 
    • Note that the deterrents are not punishmentAs far as your cat knows, the double-stick tape happened by accident, and you had nothing to do with it.


    #8. Second-order reinforcers

    Second-order reinforcers are signals that are given to a cat when they are doing something you want them to do on the promise that the primary reinforcer (reward) will be coming as soon as the task is completed. Second-order reinforcers are best used with desirable behavior and are less productive when used with cats displaying problem behaviors, like peeing on the floor. Often, they are used with cats at a distance. Let's take a look at the come when called training again to see how this would work.

    How to Use Second-Order Reinforcers to Train Your Cat to Come

    • Your cat is across the yard or room, and you want them to come to you. 
    • Call them, getting their attention with stimuli like kibble or treats. 
    • As soon as they head toward you, click a clicker or give positive verbal cues. 
    • If they stop, wait until they start toward you again, and click or speak again. 
    • Continue until the cat is standing in front of you, then give them the kibble and lots of praise.
    • When repeated, the cat eventually learns to associate the clicker (second-order reinforcer) with the treats (positive reinforcer), at which time you can use the clicker as a primary reinforcer by only giving treats a fraction of the time.

    Whatever method or technique you choose to modify your cat’s behavior, it’s good to keep in mind that training of any kind doesn’t need to be complex. Remember that repetition, consistency and good intentions are critical to behavior modification successes, while punishment, especially physical punishment, is counter-productive and only teaches the cat to be afraid of you. 

    Be sure to check out Wag!’s Cat Training Guides to learn more!

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