The idea of training a cat is clearly preposterous. Cats, if you ask me, are full-time contrarians. If I give my cat a treat, she must sniff it then walk away disdainfully lest I run away with the idea that I might have pleased her.
(An expert might call this “projection”, but I call it experience. When I’ve gone she returns to gobble it up.)
If I go to kiss her beautiful striped head (because I do frequently kiss her beautiful striped head), she sometimes likes it, but sometimes responds by turning away and presenting me with her anus. Cats do things if and when they want to. These, I humbly submit, are just some of the reasons why a cat has not won Britain’s Got Talent or become a Guide Cat for the Blind.
So a book called The Trainable Cat sounds like a misnomer. Yet the authors, John Bradshaw, a biologist who is director of the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University, and Sarah Ellis, a feline behaviour specialist and visiting fellow at Lincoln University, are utterly serious about the premise. They have written nearly 300 erudite pages arguing that it is far from ridiculous to train a feline. In fact, they say it is remarkably straightforward and benefits your relationship with your pet and the cat’s sense of well-being.
Bradshaw wrote the acclaimed 2011 bestseller In Defence of Dogs — and then Cat Sense in 2013 — which makes me sit up and pay attention. And cats, both authors say, are excellent learners and do so in a similar way to dogs. Training must be reward-based, so it’s a good idea to start before they’ve eaten so they are hungrier for treats, although play-based toys and face-stroking are equally motivating reward.
As the authors say, cats are the ultimate control freaks — training goes best when they perceive they are in control of the situation and can exit it at any time.
Using a toy mouse, we were able to make Georgie take the hurdles like a little Red Rum
So what can you train your cat to do? If you were hoping to teach it how to answer the phone or ride a bike (I’ve seen videos proving dogs can be trained to do both of these things), then bad luck. However, apparently it is possible, for example, to train it to take medicine calmly, to stop clawing your furniture, to walk into its own carrier without you touching it, and even to leap over jumps like a little show pony.
There really isn’t enough space here to describe exactly how the authors show you to do all this and more because they go into so much detail; suffice to say, it requires a lot of patience and many small baby steps encouraging behaviour by reward. It’s not the sort of light and breezy book you can read in a day either, so don’t even think of skim-reading. The philosophy that underpins the training, however, is that cats can be taught that situations they instinctively dislike can be pleasurable.
I did try a few of them, starting with the cat carrier exercise (which spans 15 dense pages, but I’m giving you a brief version). My cat, Georgie, hates her (deluxe) carrier. The basis for solving this problem is to first teach your cat to relax on cue, says the book. This involves offering a comfortable blanket and rewarding your pet for standing, circling and sitting on it, which gradually makes it associate the blanket with pleasure. This bit went well.
Then you put the blanket in the carrier to impregnate it with the cat’s scent (also take a cloth, rub your cat’s face with it and transfer the scent to the corners of the basket). All this was also fine. The tip then is to remove the top of the carrier so the cat can inspect it. To cut a long story short, you then place the blanket outside the carrier inviting the cat to relax on it, then gradually move it nearer and nearer to the carrier. This can take a while. Quite a while.
Eventually move the blanket into the carrier and perhaps using a toy or food encourage the cat to sit in it. The cat should follow. Mine didn’t. She wasn’t having any of it, I’m afraid, so I gave up and she stalked away. A more patient person might have succeeded, but for me it was a fail.
I had more luck with the clawing, but less by training and more by following some of their advice. My cat has a scratching post, but prefers our stair carpet, which now looks like shredded hair. The authors make the simple point that cats like scratching posts much taller than them, so I got a bigger one and she stopped, immediately.
There was, I don’t mind boasting, a triumph with the agility tests. We made small jumps round the house (think a mini Horse of the Year Show) and using a rubber mouse tied to a wand as a lure were able to make her take the hurdles like a little Red Rum, almost first time. I’m not sure what use this is, but it made me feel smug.
Regrettably the book doesn’t touch on cats that use your toilet by crouching on the seat. Mine has done this a few times, but sensing that I was delighted refuses to do it with an audience. Contrary, see. I’d have liked some tips on how I can encourage it more so I can film her for You’ve Been Framed and claim £250.
I doubt you’ll find a more well-informed or scientific book on cats or one that better shows you how feline thinking works. I still think cats are arch non-conformists, though. And I rather like them that way.
The Trainable Cat: How to Make Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, Allen Lane, 299pp, £20