27 September 2017

Even Shy Shelter Cats Can Learn Tricks

Researchers show that even old or shy cats can learn new tricks like high five or sit.

Scientists clicker trained cats to do tricks, like this kitten doing a high five

If you think training cats is all the rage lately, you might be right. Recently I wrote about a study that found the best way to train cats was with food (rather than click-then-food or just click). Now another study, by Dr. Lori Kogan (Colorado State University) et al, investigates training shelter cats to do four different behaviours.

Not only did most of the cats learn the tricks, but it shows this is possible even in a shelter setting which is inevitably stressful for the cats.

100 shelter cats were taught to nose-target either a chopstick or the trainer’s finger, to spin, to sit, and to high-five (touch the trainer’s hand with one of their front paws). The trainers took the traditional clicker training approach, in which the click is a bridge that marks the behaviour and predicts a food reward.

Fifteen 5-minute training sessions took place over a 2 week period, at the end of which the cats were assessed to see how well they performed the behaviour on cue:

  • 79% of cats could nose-touch the target
  • 60% could spin
  • 31% could do a high-five
  • 27% could sit on cue.

This was significantly more than could do those behaviours prior to the training sessions. And when you include the cats who had learned to ‘almost’ do the behaviour – for example, almost sat but did not quite have the tailbone on the floor – you realize just how well the cats did. Considering the training was time-limited and took place in a stressful environment, some of the cats probably just needed a little more time.

Even old and shy cats can learn tricks, like this old ginger-and-white cat sitting
Photo: Juli Hansen; top, Sue McDonald. Both Shutterstock.

I asked Cheryl Kolus DVM, one of the authors of the study, what she would like shelter staff to know about the findings. She told me,
“I think the most important thing for shelter staff is that they can now reference the scientific literature that proves shelter cats can be clicker trained if they need to get buy-in from management about starting a clicker training program. 
“A couple other important things to note is that even if a cat appears fearful initially, many are still trainable, and that the social interaction can really help a cat adjust positively to the shelter environment.”
There are some really interesting findings to do with food motivation and shyness too. The cats that were rated as more highly food motivated at the start of the session did better than those who were not at the two behaviours of high-five and nose-touching the target. Cats who were rated as shy prior to the training did just as well at training as those that were not. And the age and sex of the cat did not make a difference either.

This shows that any cat (even those that are shy or older) can take part in a training program.

The cats had two training sessions a day using a standardized plan, and one trainer took the morning shift while another trainer did the afternoons. For the duration of the study, the cats were housed in a separate unit within the shelter at which they were based. Cats were trained in their cage or in a small or larger room, depending how comfortable they were with the situation and what else was happening in the unit at the time (e.g. the presence of volunteers spending time with the cats).

"Any cat (even those that are shy or older) can take part in a training program"

Food motivation was assessed prior to the training by offering each cat a lid with chicken baby food on and a lid with canned tuna. This was also used as a preference test as whichever food the cat went to first was then used as their reward during training. After the scientists had made some choices for cats who seemed unsure, 62% of the cats got canned tuna and 38% got chicken baby food.

Some cats were not very interested in these foods, and they were offered a variety of different foods including cat treats during the training sessions, until the trainers found one the cat liked. A few cats seemed uninterested in the food but very keen on petting and so got petting as a reward instead.

You can see the second author, Cheryl Kolus, demonstrating how to teach a cat to touch a target in this video.

Other research has found that training sessions for shelter cats are linked to more contented cats with better physical health, as assessed by behavioural signs such as normal grooming and by levels of Immunoglobulin A in stool samples.

The authors of this study suggest that clicker training could be a useful enrichment program for shelter cats. The results show that any cat can be trained, and age or shyness should not be considered exclusion criteria for training sessions. The researchers also showed flexibility in training the cats where they felt comfortable (in their cage if necessary). They say training sessions may help cats cope with the stressful environment of a shelter – and they may also help make potential adopters more interested in the cats.

They also point out that positive interactions with humans may help simply by encouraging the cats to come to the front of the cage or out into the room, where they are more visible to potential adopters.

Although studies that trained shelter dogs have not necessarily resulted in increased adoptions (see here and here), it may be different for cats, since it is quite unusual for a cat to have a party trick. It could make for some great “adopt-me” videos. I look forward to seeing future research on this!

The paper is open access and you can find it via the link below.

If you want to know more about training cats, you might enjoy my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about her book (with John Bradshaw), The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat. And Cheryl Kolus DVM has some helpful resources including videos (such as the one above) on her website.

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and happy cats.

Kogan, L., Kolus, C., & Schoenfeld-Tacher, R. (2017). Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats. Animals, 7(10), 73. doi:10.3390/ani7100073

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24 September 2017

Companion Animal Psychology News September 2017

Make sure you haven't missed a thing with the latest favourites and news from Companion Animal Psychology

A dog and cat reading the news about cats and dogs

Some of my favourite posts from around the web this month

"When you have a frenzied dog barking, growling, screeching, and lunging at the end of a lead, the idea that the dog is simply frustrated by an inability to investigate that other dog is not the first thing that comes to mind." Dog play and cognitive biases by Lisa Skavienski at Your Pit Bull and You.

Puppy-farmed dogs show worse behaviour, suffer ill health and die young – so adopt don’t shop by Catherine Douglas.

“Ever heard the phrase “you get the dog you need”? Or even the thought that some dogs are “special” or universally arranged to land in our lives at the right time? The idea that some of our dogs will be game-changers over the course of our career.” Game changers by the Cognitive Canine.  

What it’s like to be a dog. Marc Bekoff interviews Gregory Berns about his new book.

“Next time you see someone walking a dog in a muzzle, offer them a smile. They are being responsible dog owners who are trying to help their dogs and keep everyone safe.” To muzzle or not to muzzle by Emily Levine at Decoding Your Pet.

Just because the Kong Pawzzle is for dogs, doesn’t mean cats won’t like it. Food Puzzles for Cats gets some felines to try it.

“If a stressed cat is an unhealthy cat, then a happy cat is more likely to be a healthy one. What can cat owners do to make their cats not only less stressed, but more happy?” Happiness is key to cat health by Catalyst Council.

If you’re thinking of adopting a cat, here are some things to think about from Ingrid Johnson

Photos, videos and podcasts

Pet rescues in Harvey’s wake via the Atlantic.

Expressive portraits reveal the quirky human-like qualities of different dogs. Dog portratis by Alexander Khokhlov.

Dr Lisa Radosta on making your family home Fear Free.

The Pet Professional Guild World Service interviews Dr. Ilana Reisner about her upcoming presentation for PPG on dog bites and children.

“These little felines represent your community in addition to just the cute photo we see.” Will the Bodega cats of instragram be put out of business by the latest tech start-up, asks the Guardian.


A court in Oregon has upheld a decision ordering a family to have their dogs “debarked”. This procedure is illegal in many countries.

How the chaos of Hurricane Katrina helped save pets from flooding in Texas by Karin Brulliard for the Washington Post.

A proposed bill in California would ban the sale of animals from puppy mills or mass breeding operations.


The Dog Breeding Reform Group is holding a seminar at the University of Surrey on tackling inherited and conformational problems in dogs. 22nd October 2017.

Managing compassion fatigue: How to care for yourself while caring for animals and people. Webinar by Dr. Vanessa Rohlf for the Pet Professional Guild, Thursday 28th September 2917,  5pm - 6pm (EDT).

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

I’m delighted to say that Companion Animal Psychology has been nominated for the People’s Choice Award: Canada’s Favourite Science Blog. Please vote for me here.

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry by Nicholas Dodman.

Gina Bishopp wrote a fantastic guest post about what it means when dogs lick their lips or look away: Do dogs use body language to calm us down?

An interesting new study finds the best way to train cats is with food.

And I also published a list of the resources that you will find on this website, from the people and blogs to follow, to a list of dog training research resources that will satisfy your inner dog training geek. Check out the list and let me know what you find helpful.

Lately there’s been some interesting research on dog walking, including a recent study by Carri Westgarth et al, covered here by Robert Bergland.  Bergland says, "Although most dog owners said the primary reason they walked regularly with their non-human "significant other" was the well-being of their dog, the symbiotic feedback loop of improved psychological and physical health created an upward spiral of wellness for all parties involved."

It has set me thinking about what I enjoy about walking my dog. One of those things would be getting outside whatever the weather, but sometimes my dog Bodger sticks his head out the door and decides he doesn’t want to go any further. This is especially the case in heavy rain and of course it’s his choice. But most of the time we are both happy on a walk, him sniffing here, there (and everywhere), and me just enjoying the fresh air. What do you enjoy about taking your dog for walkies?

As always, you can reach me on twitter, Facebook or by email (companimalpsych at gmail dot com). Until next time,


Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

20 September 2017

Resources at Companion Animal Psychology

From the people and blogs to follow to dog training research, there are lots of resources for dog and cat people here at Companion Animal Psychology.

Useful resources on dogs, cats & science illustrated by a cat poking its head out of a box
Cardboard boxes are a useful resource for cats; resources for cat and dog people in this post. Photo: isumi1 (Shutterstock)

In the five and a half years that I’ve been writing Companion Animal Psychology, I’ve built up a sizeable back catalogue of blog posts about science and our pets. I’ve also made a number of resources for readers who want to know more. Since there are many new readers lately, I thought I’d make a list so you can find everything.

Resources for dog and cat people at Companion Animal Psychology blog

Dog Training Research Resources

The science of dog training is a source of fascination for many dog trainers, and it makes an important contribution to animal welfare too. Research in this field looks at topics such as the methods ordinary people use to train their dogs (and how obedient they think their dog is as a result), the potential effects of different dog training methods on fear, anxiety, stress and aggression in dogs, as well as fascinating topics such as how dogs respond to praise, petting and food.

This page lists scientific studies on dog training along with links to the papers. And because many scientific articles are behind a paywall, I’ve also listed blogs where you can read about those articles – not just on this blog, but also posts by the likes of Dr. Patricia McConnell, Julie Hecht, Dr. Sophia Yin and Dr. Stanley Coren.

The science of dog training page is one of the most popular resources on this website and I update it regularly. Hopefully you will find it useful.

A Jack  Russell gets a treat - evidence-based dog training

A cat training research resources page is a new work in progress.

Less Stress at the Vet

I’ve published many blog posts about studies that show dogs and cats find vet visits very stressful. So I put together a list of useful resources to help cats and dogs have less stress at the vet.

From general advice on going to the vet, to training plans to help your dog or cat accept medication or restraint, you’ll find lots of useful links here to posts and videos by Dr. Andy Roark, Dr. Sarah Ellis, Laura Monaco Torelli, Chirag Patel, Pam Johnson-Bennett, Dr. Mikel Delgado, Dr. Jeannine Berger, International Cat Care, Kathy Sdao MA, the Muzzle Up! Project, Fear Free, and many more.

This is a post to bookmark and come back to, but remember it’s never too early to start training your pet to like trips to the vet.

A dog and cat at the vet - resources for less stressful vet visits
Photo: flywish (Shutterstock)

Animal Book Club

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is coming up to its first anniversary. The club reads one book a month (except for January and July, when we take a break). Although the Facebook group is full, anyone can read alongside us each month.

My own personal highlights from the books so far are The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, and How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. But I’ve enjoyed every book we’ve read so far and each one brings something unique to our understanding of companion animals and our relationship with them.

The title of each month’s book is published in a blog post on the first Sunday of every month.

A puppy reads a book for the animal book club

Pet People to Follow

There are many brilliant scientists, bloggers, dog trainers, animal behaviourists, veterinarians, organizations and general pet people who not only produce great content themselves on their blogs but also share great content on their twitter and Facebook feeds.

So back in January I put together a list of the Pet People to Follow in 2017 complete with their social media handles. You will find lots of interesting new people to follow on this list – and please add your own suggestions in the comments on that post.

A beagle follows its nose, and these are the best pet people to follow for great info on dogs and cats

Update: You can find the 2018 list here.

Pet Blogs to Follow

My pet blogs to follow list is dedicated specifically to bloggers who write thoughtful, scientific, modern posts on dogs, cats or the human-animal bond. It updates every time someone publishes a new post, so you will always find something new to read.

From time to time new blogs are added or a blog will fall off the list due to technical problems or not posting in a while.

The proviso is that it will only work on desktop (it does not work on mobile at this time).

A cat looking at a computer with a list of the best pet blogs to follow
Photo: Renata Apanaviciene (Shutterstock)

The Train for Rewards Blog Party

Many studies point to risks to animal welfare when people use aversives to train dogs (see a summary of a literature review or the dog training research resources page for more). So I started the Train for Rewards blog party in 2016 to celebrate what we can do with reward-based training and encourage more people to give it a try. I was delighted so many bloggers decided to join!

You can read the 2016 Train for Rewards posts here (along with a summary of the highlights).

The 2017 Train for Rewards blog posts are here (along with a summary).

The Train for Rewards blog party takes place on 16th June. If you are a blogger and would like to take part, look out for the invitation in late May.

Companion Animal Psychology News

I have started a monthly newsletter which keeps you posted on what is happening here at Companion Animal Psychology, along with links to some of my favourite blog posts, articles, podcasts and photos of the last month, and upcoming events that might be of interest to readers.

The newsletter is typically published on the third Sunday of every month. You can read the August newsletter here which includes a couple of photos of dog-friendly pub signs from my recent trip to England.

Beautiful white cat sleeps on a book - useful resources for cat and dog people
Photo: Africa  Studio (Shutterstock)

Research Resources for Animal Shelters and Rescues

Animal shelters and rescues face many challenges in trying to increase adoptions, provide good welfare for animals, and reduce surrenders and euthanasia rates. This page lists all the posts where I have written about studies that are directly pertinent to animal shelters.

A cat and dog asleep, dreaming of resources for dog and cat owners

All About Dogs and All About Cats

Here at Companion Animal Psychology, I write mostly about dogs and cats, but also from time to time about other animals such as rabbits or fish.

Now that there’s a lot of material, I made a couple of summary pages where you can find links to some of my most popular posts about dogs and cats. So you can make a cup of tea or coffee and sit down to read all about dogs or all about cats.

Essential guides for cat people and dog people are highlighted at the top of each page. This is where you will find links to articles on how to choose a dog trainer, my ultimate dog training tip, how to provide environmental enrichment for your cat, and the secrets of your cat's nose.

If you know a new dog or cat owner, they’ll find plenty of useful information there.

A happy dog rolls in the grass... Lots of resources to help you have a happy dog
Photo: Dora Zett (Shutterstock)

Guest Posts at Companion Animal Psychology

I only recently started to accept guest contributions, and I’ve been lucky to publish some cracking guest posts from Kristi Benson, Gina Bishopp, Jane Gething-Lewis, and James Oxley and Clare Ellis.

You can find links to all guest posts here.

If you’re thinking of submitting a guest post, please pay careful attention to these guidelines.

Interviews with Scientists and Authors

I’ve been very lucky to conduct some interviews with some amazing scientists and authors about their research or books. You can see a full list of interviews here. Again, you'll find plenty to enjoy.

Companion Animal Psychology cat loves dog logo

And Finally, the T-shirt…

If you like what I do here at Companion Animal Psychology, maybe you would like to support my favourite shelter by buying the Companion Animal Psychology t-shirt? The gorgeous ‘cat loves dog’ design is by Lili Chin and features my dog and one of my cats greeting each other.

The design is available on t-shirts in various colours, a hoodie, sweatshirt, and pillow.

100% of the proceeds go to the BC SPCA Maple Ridge.

Follow and Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology

As always, you can follow me on twitter, Facebook or pinterest, and you can subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to make sure you never miss a post.

For the time being, there is a search box in the sidebar that you can use to find posts on particular topics. When Google brings in the next Chrome updates, I will have to remove the search box as it is not https. That was partly the impetus for making a post that lists where to find useful pet resources on this blog.

I’m always open to suggestions for blog posts, so if you have particular topics you’d like to see covered you can email me on companimalpsych at gmail dot com.

Make your dog happy: "I love to go for walks"

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

19 September 2017

Shortlisted for Canada's Favourite Science Blog

Companion  Animal Psychology is shortlisted for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog. Vote for your favourites!

Badge for the People's Choice 2017 Canada's Favourite Science Online contest

I am thrilled to have been short-listed for the People's Choice Award: Canada's Favourite Science Blog.

You can see the shortlist and vote here on the Science Borealis website. Voters can select their three favourite blogs and three favourite science websites (so you have six votes in total). It's a great way to show support for your favourite science sites and blogs and find new ones to follow too.

You can follow the contest on social media via the hashtag #CdnSciFav. Every day from now until the close of voting on 14th October, Science Borealis and SWCC will be promoting the short-listed blogs and websites on social media. The contest is part of Science Literacy Week (#scilit17) here in Canada which celebrates science with events across the country. 

Three finalists in each category will be announced during the week of October 23rd, and the winners will be announced at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov 1-3) and on social media.

13 September 2017

Do Dogs Use Body Language to Calm Us Down?

Are lip licking and looking away signals of discomfort and expressions of peace in the domestic dog?

Guest post by Georgina (Gina) Bishopp (Hartpury College, UK)

Do dogs use body language to calm us down? What it means when a dog licks its lips (like this one) and looks away
Photo: StudioCAXAP

A study by Dr. Angelika Firnkes (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich) et al., 2017 has found that the domestic dog uses appeasement gestures both when feeling threatened and during greetings with humans. For the first time it has now been shown that dogs will use at least two of these signals, the lip lick and look away, to appease their human social companions. Turid Rugaas (2005) had previously described a set of behaviours in dogs, including the lip lick and looking away, through years of working as a behavioural consultant, that she described as ‘Calming Signals’. Rugaas (2005) explained that the dogs would use these ‘Calming Signals’ when feeling uncomfortable and attempting to prevent aggressive responses from their conspecifics and humans. For the first time scientific research has supported this theory in relation to dog-human communication as described by Rugaas.

Many of these behaviours can also be described as appeasement gestures and have been shown to occur during close range dog to dog interactions, (Mariti et al., 2014), almost exclusively when dogs are interacting, (Gazzano et al., 2010). Furthermore, after an aggressive interaction the receiver of the aggression was more likely to show one of these ‘Calming Signals’ and when this occurred aggressive displays from the receiver decreased, (Mariti et al., 2014; Gazzano et al., 2010).

116 dogs over the age of 13 months were accompanied with their owners to perform a standardized behavioural test, (Firnkes et al., 2017). This sample size is good compared to a lot of dog behaviour research where samples tend to be a lot smaller. The human testing the dogs was unfamiliar and subjected the dogs and owners to various stimuli.

The situations that the dogs experienced were either environmental (such as passing a jogger), involved contact (i.e. person walking directly towards dog), or were threatening (i.e. threatening stare at the dog). It is worth noting that the contexts described as threatening were kept safe by using leads and muzzles, and all of the stimuli were very realistic and likely to be experienced by many dogs during their lives (such as a person kicking away a football).

Looking away occurred significantly more in socially direct situations, such as the ‘friendly salutation’ or ‘threatening stare’ stimuli, suggesting that this behaviour is used as a social signal. Lip licking also occurred in a similar way, however did not occur as often as was expected during the ‘threatening screaming’ and ‘physical threat’ [the test human pretended to strike out at the dog] situations. Both did however occur more frequently during friendly interactions after an initial threatening situation, again supporting the theory that these behaviours are used to signal peace and conflict avoidance.

The theory laid out by the authors of this paper for the lack of lip licking and looking away during the very threatening situations is that it is possible that by this point the dogs believed that appeasement was no longer appropriate. Instead they showed clearly submissive behaviour such as the flattened ears, a drawn-in tail and bent joints. This study highlights room for future research to explore the possibility that these behaviours are not intended as signals but are in fact physiological stress responses to the threatening stimuli. This is due to lip licking also occurring during stress responses in dogs to human threat in previous studies.

In this way, I think when a dog looks away or licks its lips they are not signalling to you that they want you to completely back away but are looking for a response that indicates that you too are not looking to aggress. In this way the better human response may be to reduce potential threat through looking away themselves and lowering to the ground, so as not to arch over the dog. In this way the assumption is not being made that dogs showing these signals are overtly stressed by the stimuli or do not want to engage with the stimuli, however that these dogs want to interact with the stimuli in the most peaceful way possible.

Either way, these behaviours are clearly important elements of healthy dog communication with both conspecifics and human caretakers and should not be ignored by those interacting with these animals.

Have you ever experienced lip licking or looking away in your dog? How do you interpret this behaviour?

About the author:

Photo of Georgina (Gina) Bishopp
My name is Georgina (Gina) Bishopp and I am a 23-year-old MRes Animal Behaviour and Welfare student at the University of West England, Hartpury College campus. Since graduating from my first degree (BSc Animal Science with Care and Management) I have worked for the Blue Cross and am now at the RSPCA, primarily working with dogs and cats. I own a horse and have ridden since a child, experiencing every different kind of horse training and management as I have tried to understand which method is best for the horse. Now I use a blend of tradition and new age techniques, and only those that are supported by current scientific understanding of horses themselves or other mammals (including the dog). My academic focus has primarily been with companion animals, primarily dogs, and equines, however my interests are very broad and extend to wildlife and zoo animals welfare as well.

Other posts by Georgina Bishopp: The importance of science in horse training.

Gazzano, A.; Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Falaschi, C; Forti, S. (2010). Are domestic dogs able to calm conspecifics by using visual communication? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 5 (1).
Firnkes, A., Bartels, A., Bidoli, E., Erhard, M., (2017). Appeasement signals used by dogs during dog-human communication. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.
Mariti, C.; Falaschi, C.; Zilocchi, M.; Carlone, B.; Gazzano, A. (2014). Analysis of calming signals in domestic dogs: Are they signals and are they calming? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(6).
Rugaas T. (2005) On Talking Terms With Dogs Calming Signals. Legacy by Mail, Inc. USA.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

06 September 2017

The Best Way to Train Cats is With Food

Using food alone is the quickest way to train cats to touch a target, according to this pilot study.

How to train cats, like this beautiful white cat with blue eyes
Photo: Esin Deniz (Shutterstock)

You can train cats to go up to a target and touch it with their nose. This in itself will be news to many people, but researchers at Massey University have investigated the best way to train cats to do this. It involves food.

There’s a lot of interest in training cats at the moment, not necessarily to perform obedience behaviours like sit and stay, but to help them in their daily lives. You can teach your cat to like going in their cat carrier so trips to the vet don’t have to begin with you getting scratched-up arms. And you can use positive reinforcement to help teach your cat where they are allowed to scratch (along with provision of the right scratching post, of course).

Erin Willson et al picked the behaviour of touching a red wand target with the nose, and set about training 9 cats to do this. They divided them into three groups: one that was rewarded with food alone, one that used a bridging stimulus (a beep followed by the food reward), and one that used a secondary reinforcer only (a beep – previously associated with food – but no food).

The first two of these conditions will be familiar to dog trainers who use positive reinforcement, since they equate to the use of food only or to click-plus-treat. The last condition may have some of you thinking back to an interesting talk by Simon Gadbois at SPARCS about the clicker and the emotions of seeking vs liking (you can read a nice summary and discussion on Patricia McConnell’s blog).

The scientists concluded that both food alone and the bridging stimulus (beep plus food) worked, but that food alone was faster. The secondary reinforcer only (beep but no food) did not work. In fact cats in this group began scratching and biting the experimenter.

This is only a small study so there weren’t really enough cats to draw firm conclusions about training methods.  Nonetheless the results are very interesting, and it is really nice to see cat training getting the attention of researchers.

The study used a Treat & Train, which is an automatic food dispenser. The red wand target comes with the machine.

12 cats from the university’s feline unit took part in the study. They were aged 2 to 12 years.

Use food to train cats, like this calico cat sitting pretty for a treat
Photo: Kristi Blokhin (Shutterstock)

3 of them took part in what is called an extinction procedure. First they were taught that the beep from the Treat and Train machine meant food was about to arrive. The next day they heard the beeps without any food arriving, to see how long it would take for their response to the beep to extinguish (in other words, until they stopped approaching for food). The median response was 11 trials. This was important information for one of the conditions in the experiment.

9 cats were trained to nose-touch the target using a standardized plan. This was a shaping procedure, so cats were initially rewarded for just looking at the target, then for getting progressively closer until eventually they were expected to touch it with their nose.

The cats were divided into three groups. A beep is meaningless to a cat, so two of the groups (the bridge group and the secondary reinforcer group) were taught to associate the beep from the machine with food. Food is a primary reinforcer because it naturally has value to cats.

The food-only group got to hang out with the machine without any beeping, so that time with the machine would not be a factor.

During the training sessions, the food-only group was rewarded with food from the Treat and Train whenever they performed the correct behaviour. The machine was set up not to beep.

For the bridge group, the beep of the machine was used as a bridge, something that marks the right behaviour and fills the time until the arrival of food. In this condition, the beep is always followed by food. When the cat performed the correct behaviour, the machine beeped, and then food arrived.

For the last group, the beep was used as a secondary reinforcer. In other words, when cats performed the right behaviour, they heard the beep but did not get food. These cats were given some additional beep-food pairings to maintain this association and prevent its extinction (that’s why the first part of the experiment was important).

All of the cats in the food-only group and the bridging stimulus group (beep plus food) learned the behaviour. The group reinforced with food-only was faster at learning the task, but took the same amount of trials as the bridge group.

None of the cats in the secondary reinforcer (beep-only) group learned it. As mentioned above, the cats in this group began to scratch and bite the experimenter. Perhaps they were frustrated that they could not figure out how to get the food. (This reminds me of the study of the Eureka effect in dogs, where dogs became reluctant to enter the experimental area when they could not make the reward happen).

So if you are planning to train a cat, you should use food. (Incidentally, food is also important when training dogs).

The experimenters used a piece of Hill’s kibble as the reward.  If you’re training a cat at home, you might find other kinds of food more motivating; see my interview with Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat for some ideas.

The results of this study are broadly in line with Chiandetti et al’s (2016) dog training study, which found no difference between use of food only, clicker-plus-food, or verbal-marker-plus food (that study did not test a secondary-reinforcer-only option).

The cats were assigned to groups in the order they happened to participate, and it turned out three older cats were assigned to the secondary-reinforcer-only group. We don’t know if age and gender of the cats would make any difference to trainability and this would be another topic for future research.

The authors conclude,
“the use of a primary reinforcer, alone, or a bridging stimulus (followed by a primary reinforcer) appeared to be efficacious for training cats to perform a novel task. However, the primary reinforcer, alone, may be a more time efficient method. The use of a secondary reinforcer, alone, may not be efficacious.”

Incidentally, learning to touch a target with the nose may seem like a trick, but it has its uses. Some people train their dogs to touch a target (such as their hand) and hold in place. It’s called a stationing behaviour because it keeps the dog still at a station, and can be useful during veterinary examinations.

This is a fascinating study and I hope to see lots more research on cat training in the future.

Have you ever tried to train a cat? If so, how did it go?

Further Reading on Cat Training

If you want to know more about how to train cats, you might like these books:

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. (This is a must-read for all cat owners).
Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor - also available as part of a kit: Karen Pryor, Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats Kit.
Cat Training in 10 Minutes by Miriam Fields Babineau.
Trick Training for Cats by Christine Hauschild.

Willson, E. K., Stratton, R. B., Bolwell, C. F., & Stafford, K. J. (2017). Comparison of positive reinforcement training in cats: a pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

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03 September 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club September 2017

The book of the month is Pets on the Couch by Nicholas Dodman.

Pets on the Couch: A Maltese reads a book for the Animal Book Club

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for September 2017 is Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry by Nicholas Dodman.

From the cover:
"Racehorses with Tourette's syndrome, spinning dogs with epilepsy, cats with compulsive disorders, feather-plucking parrots with anxiety, and a diffident bull terrier with autism - these astonishing and difficult cases were all helped by what pioneering veterinarian Dr. Nicholas Dodman calls One Medicine, the profound recognition that humans and other animals share the same basic neurochemistry, and that our minds and emotions work in similar ways. Traditional veterinary treatments did not cure these behaviors because they treated the symptoms as disorders of the body, rather than problems of the mind.  
Dr. Dodman, the Oliver Sacks of animal brains, demonstrates that our pets have thoughts and emotions similar to those of humans. His approach and philosophy save animals' lives, giving hope and help to pets and owners who are otherwise out of options."

Are you reading Pets on the Couch too? Why not leave a comment below with your thoughts on the book.

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