In the book The Trainable Cat, authors John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis discuss not only how cats should be trained but why cats need to be trained. The Trainable Cat was the first selection of the online Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, newly-formed this fall by Zazie Todd. Besides discussing the book, members had the privilege of asking questions of author Sarah Ellis. I’m taking a different approach to my usual reviews, by sharing highlights of the discussion by some of the three-hundred members.
To start the discussion of The Trainable Cat, Todd asked this question: “Right at the beginning of the book, the authors say, ‘we aim to show you how training can improve not just your relationship with your cat but also your beloved pet’s sense of well-being. That’s not to say that the training won’t be fun–it will, for both of you–but the distinction is that you will be producing a happy and well-disposed pet, not a circus star.’ What do you think of this approach to training?”
Of all the questions posed, this one elicited the most responses. Participants liked how the authors give readers an insight into how cats themselves view the world. The unique feline perspective is why training for cats must be different than that for dogs, although there may be some overlap in techniques. Respondents also appreciated the focus of the authors on training cats for the sake of the bond between cat and owner and the psychological health of the cat, as opposed to the teaching of tricks. People domesticated cats and so we have a duty to train cats to cope with the world we’ve placed them into. Cats should be taught how to handle touching, grooming, being crated, and visiting the vet without being unduly stressed. Moreover, because these days many of us rightfully keep them exclusively indoors, we should help cats live an enriched life that’s comparable to the one that they formerly led outdoors. A few participants debated over whether tricks were okay to teach too. Several felt that although training shouldn’t be about “bells and whistles,” the latter was still an acceptable way to enhance a cat’s life.
Next, Todd turned to questions about specific chapters. Chapter three has a set of nine key skills to practice training. About this chapter, Todd asked, “What did you think of these skills? Were there any you found particularly easy or particularly hard (to do or to understand)? If you’ve had chance to try some of them in practice, please share your experiences.”
The consensus was that we all applauded how the authors had structured The Trainable Cat. The authors first present key skills. Then as new training skills are introduced, the key skills are used as a reference. In this way, the content builds on itself, and complex training tasks can be understood as edible chunks.
The Trainable Cat not being my first book about teaching cats, I shared that I’d already been working on teaching my cats how to do obedience and agility. Since starting to read The Trainable Cat, however, I’ve also begun to try marking and maintaining a behavior. Basically, instead of rewarding my cats after each compliance, I’m using praise and the sound of a clicker to let them know when a behavior has been correctly performed. After they have been compliant for a random number of times, I treat my cats with food. Because they don’t know when I’ll reward them, I’ve been better able to teach the maintenance of a behavior.
Chapter four is entitled ‘How cats adapt to living with an alien species (us!)’. Todd posed the question, “What are the main points you’ve taken away from the book about how cats perceive us and our world?” While respondents referred to different examples, we all seemed to agree that this chapter made us think about how cats are socialized. Many pet owners are fully aware that puppies need socialization, but don’t always consider the fact that kittens do too. Case in point, the amount of exposure that kittens receive from men or from women might impact how well they accept either gender. Just as importantly, the amount of exposure that kittens receive from adults or from children could equally impact how they accept people of different ages. The authors dedicate several pages exclusively to how to prepare a cat for the arrival of a baby. For me, being well-aware of how many families will give up a cat because an adult or child in the household doesn’t get along with the cat, his chapter alone is worth the book’s purchase for anyone in the role of educating cat owners.
Chapters five to eleven build on the key skills described in chapter three. Topics covered include: introducing cats to other cats, introducing cats to pets, crating cats, grooming cats, examining cats, and keeping cats safe when outdoors. About these chapters, Todd asked the general question: “Which sections did you particularly enjoy and/or find particularly useful?”
Of all the questions posed, this one elicited the least responses, perhaps because everyone found it difficult to single out any one topic. Personally, there were sections from which I learned more from than others, but I also think the book works best when absorbed as a complete package. Thanks to The Trainable Cat, I’ve started to develop a whole new training mindset. I’m beginning to generalize my training efforts to include behaviors that my cats need. For example, when Andy and I bring home new purchases, I place them where our cats might discover them but I also allow them the freedom to discover these purchases on their own cognizance. If our cats indicate a dislike or fear of something, such as small spaces or loud noises, I help them gradually bring up their confidence. Or if our cats act in a displeasing way, such as growling over and stealing food, I teach them to wait.
At three-hundred pages, with minimal illustrations, The Trainable Cat can feel overwhelming if one is starting out. Even so, I highly recommend that all cat owners take the time to read, study, and apply The Trainable Cat ideas. Your cat(s) will thank you!