Jennifer is a writer, editor, feminist, and Potterhead. She also loves her cat and studying cat behavior.
Why Positive Reinforcement Is the Best Way to Train Your Pets
To put it simply, positive reinforcement is the best way to go about training and retraining your pets. It brings about more results, it discourages bad habits, and it ensures the forever-closer bonding between you and your pets.
When I temporarily introduced another cat into my home, my cat, Prince Fredward, did not like it. After a long journey of trial and error, I can 100% vouch for positive reinforcement. Here, I'll share the way I soothed Fredward's snarky attitude with a light version of this method, and I'll discuss some ways you can reinforce behavior yourself!
Adventures in Catsitting
Have you ever tried to get a fully grown cat, one who is used to being the sole cat in the house, to become accustomed to a visiting feline? Yeah? How’d that work out for you?
If you’re one with an uberly cuddly cat that also happens to like other cats, then you are indeed one of the lucky ones. Me? Not so much.
My Prince Fredward is a cuddle bug. He knows he’s allowed in my lap whenever he wants (even if I do try to tell him that my computer time is not also his time), and he’s vocal about wanting my attention. But when we had a cat visiting, Fredward didn't like it (to say the least). He was jealous and didn’t want to see the other cat in his line of sight, on his turf, in my lap, or receiving my attention.
First Signs of Hostility
At first, we kept the visiting kitty Luna in one of the bedrooms and then alternated and kept Prince Fredward in one of the rooms. They’d have food and water and weren’t let out at the same time.
Fredward is a bully, but he isn’t exactly brave. He would try to intimidate Luna by running up to her door, but then he would stop. He'd raise a paw, but he never actually swiped at anything.
I thought, oh, okay, this will work. I just have to give it some time.
It did take a while, but eventually, Prince Fredward and Luna got along just fine. We catsat for quite some time, so please make sure you know a couple of things about the owners before you agree to catsit for them.
Things to Consider Before Catsitting
Before taking on the task of caring for another person's pet, please take the time to go over these few points. It may help in determining whether or not you'll end up having to adopt yet another pet!
- How long have you known the owners?
- Do they adore their cat, or are they just trying to pawn it off?
- Are they having money troubles and trying to pawn it off?
- Are they going on vacation or just don't want the trouble of taking care of the cat for a while?
- Is the cat in good health?
Basically, know what you're getting into. Know upfront exactly how long they need you to catsit, exactly why they need you to catsit in the first place, and if you don't know them that well, take a good look at how they care for the animal. Owners who know what they're doing will have a clean cat with shiny fur who eats, drinks, and (sometimes! we all have our night owls) sleeps well.
The Conflict Begins
Fredward meows when he doesn't get his way. He doesn't even have one of those adorably small mews. He has a long, loud, meooooooowww! Like something is stepping on his tail. And as if he’s a cartoon cat, it’s clear and loud.
Even though Fredward never tried to physically hurt Luna, he was annoying to the point where we just gave up and kept the animals apart.
Types of Aggression Between Cats
According to Paws.org, there are four types of aggression between cats: Territorial aggression, inter-male aggression, defensive aggression, and redirected aggression. Territorial is the most common.
What Is Territorial Aggression?
This type of cat-on-cat aggression comes from a deep-rooted evolutionary part of their cute little brains. When some cats feel as though their home has been intruded upon (and, as a result, is in danger), there is likely to be some sort of defense that occurs. Fredward didn't want Luna taking over his space or his people. Simple enough.
Our First Attempt
Prince Fredward was vocal and didn’t want Luna to be within eyeshot. So rather than ignoring him and making him deal with it, we would try to be stern.
If he saw her and meowed indignantly, we would say, “Fredward. No. You know that’s bad.”
If he threw himself onto the middle of the living room floor in a fit like a human toddler, we'd say, “Fredwarrrrrrd. Uh uh. Do it again, and I’ll throw my bookmark at you, I swear!”
Losing Our Patience
When Fredward refused to stop acting out, we all had our moments when we lost our tempers and actually yelled at him, “FREDWARD. I SAID NO MORE NOISE.”
We sprayed him from a water bottle. Clapped our hands loudly. Shut him in a room (which he is also vocal about how much he does not like closed doors) with food, water, and litter, tapped his nose, pointed a finger in his face, and talked sternly.
It all seemed to work for those couple of seconds. At least, we definitely got his attention, and he started looking to see where the water bottle was before coming into the room to meow (he stayed in the doorway/archway or just around the corner to meow instead).
Too Smart for His Own Good
He realized that we were the ones giving in, not him. He was the one who had the power, and he was using it.
I just couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong! I was still in college when my Pop-Pop moved to the nursing home, and we adopted Prince Fredward, so I wasn’t there and didn’t know what was done to keep Fredward from being a brat with our cocker spaniel Jamie.
I think he knew this too. Brat.
Mom says Fredward WAS a brat to the cockerspaniel we had at the time, Jamie, when we first brought him home. But how did they get him to change?! How did Fredward realize that he would just have to tolerate the dog?
I had been puzzling over this and over this. I mean, we had had Luna for 16 days so far this time! But on the 17th day, it became so blindingly obvious that I was disgusted with myself for not seeing it—or practicing it—earlier.
What Finally Worked
As soon as I changed my behavior from condemning pet owner to understanding friend, Prince Fredward’s behavior did a complete 180. First, he stopped meowing so loudly. Oh, he didn’t stop completely, trust me. But his sounds were softer, shorter, and done with less hostility.
So I started letting them out at the same time, first for only a couple of minutes, as I made sure each had food and the litter was changed, etc. Then one day, I let them both out for a couple of hours, and while Fredward was a brat a little bit of the time, he mostly just stayed away from Luna and tried to keep as close to me as possible.
Positive reinforcement can include food treats, praise, petting, or a favorite toy or game. Since most dogs are highly food-motivated, food treats work especially well for training.
Up until this point, we had been reacting to Fredward's behavior negatively, by scolding him and inflicting minor punishments. By agreeing with his so-called suffering and giving him comfort instead of correction, he calmed down.
Some pets might respond to different degrees of positive reinforcement. By rewarding good behavior with things like treats, pets, or kindly spoken words, owners can reinforce whichever behaviors they'd like their furry friends to repeat.
On day 21, I’d had them both out for about 6 hours. There had been some hissy fits. Fredward thought it would be clever to dart at Luna. He was trying to intimidate her.
But Luna didn’t budge, and then when Fredward stopped, she sort of purred at him and then tried to sneak up to him and cuddle against his side. He was NOT happy! XD Fredward let out a real loud and indignant howl before running to me.
I could just hear him yelling, “MOM. SHE TOUCHED ME. DID YOU SEE THAT? SHE STARTED IT.”
Learning occurs by establishing the relationship between behavior and consequences. There can be different possible outcomes of behavior, and consequences can be positive or negative. When there is a positive relationship between behavior and consequences, the more your pet performs a certain behavior, the more of the consequence it receives.
I could barely keep myself from laughing! But I knew what I needed was to still be his understanding friend.
Finally, I started talking to him in low, soothing tones: “You’re okay. She’s not even bothering you.” He quieted down and threw himself against me in defeat. Meanwhile, Luna sat in the hallway right in front of the door to my room as Fredward pretended not to see her.
That is, he pretended she didn’t exist until she started to play with the corner of the door.
She flipped upside down, still purring and making cute little gurgling noises under her breath as she just played cute-like. Fredward didn’t like that either. He let me know by stretching almost all the way back and tilting his head up and back to look at me and meow.
“You’re okay. She’s being cute, and you’re being good. See? Everything’s fine.” He quieted down again.
And then Luna jumped on my bed. She must have been on my bed for like 20 minutes! It was so cute. Luna just wanted Fredward to play with her. And she definitely knew how to push her luck. She’d get as close to Fredward as she could before she'd finally scamper 2 feet away to safety again.
After another week, they started to act like siblings. Because Luna was only around two years old, she was constantly wanting to play. Fredward, at seven years old, became short-tempered and annoyed easily. Luckily, he was willing to play along with her for at least a few minutes at a time!
Also, because Luna's owners had her declawed, I never knew if Fredward was going too far. He still has his claws. When Luna swatted at him, it didn't hurt, so did he even realize he could be hurting her if he was rough? I don't know!
Cat Lady Aspirations
The best part about having had Luna that long was the progress I saw in Prince Fredward. I was so depressed when I realized that he was a brat to other animals. I mean, I wanted to get at least five more cats when I got my own place! I wanted to have a feline halfway house. I would save cats from the pounds and keep them long enough to socialize them/bring them back to health and then find them loving, caring homes!
But I certainly couldn’t do that with a jealous pet. Prince Fredward would only make it worse, and then I would make it even more so, especially since I have absolutely no patience for Fredward’s vocal whining.
But after the progress I saw that day? That future was still a possibility. =)
Disciplinary Trial and Error Stories
I'd love to hear the stories of how you use positive reinforcement, or what other disciplinary actions work best for your pets ! =) And of course any tips and tricks to get the animals to all behave and get along are always welcome.
More Cat Stories by Meisjunk
- Causes and Solutions for Skittish Cats
Is your cat skittish? Here are possible causes of a "scaredy" cat and ways to help calm them.
- Long Haired versus Short Haired Cats
A brief comparison of long hair and short hair cats. Which do you prefer?
- 10 Easy, Simple Cat Toys You Can Make From Around The House
Did you know that you can make multiple toys for your cat without spending a dime? Here's a list of 10!
- HumaneSociety.org: Positive Reinforcement Training
- SimplyPsychology.org: What Is Positive Reinforcement?
- VCAHospitals.com: Using Reinforcement and Rewards to Train Your Pet
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2011 Jennifer Kessner
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on November 17, 2014:
Ha! That he was! He reigns over his domain with care! XD Thanks so much for the comment!
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on November 17, 2014:
Prince Fredward was King of the Jungle and didn't want to share the throne. But I suppose the feminine touch will eventually calm all of us raging beasts. Great hub!
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on June 12, 2014:
Haha, yes it's definitely the easiest thing to remember! Thanks for reading and commenting!
Joe from north miami FL on June 12, 2014:
Sometimes its hard to remember how to positively reinforce your pet without offering it a treat that seems to always be my go to lol.
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on May 27, 2014:
Aww, I wish your two pets got along too! XD Sounds like the interactions would be hilarious though! Thanks so much for commenting and voting! =)
Mary Hyatt from Florida on May 27, 2014:
My daughter next door has a cat that sound just like your Fredward! Her cat "talks" all the time. I have a Min. Schnazer who want to eat her cat! I wish they got along together.
Love your Hub. Your video was so cute!! The photos of your cats are just priceless, too.
Voted UP, and shared.
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on December 18, 2011:
Cats definitely have their own interesting personalities. XD These two now groom one another (and still play chase!) when they are together. If you do get one, please share the experiences with us! =)
rob_allen from MNL, PH on December 18, 2011:
Oh, i am not a cat person but I think these cats are really adorable. Now, im thinking of owning one next year! :)))
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on December 07, 2011:
Thanks for reading, Sharyn! =) I'm glad you enjoyed the article. We are still catsitting, actually. As she's younger, she still tries to play with Prince Fredward. XD Unfortunately, he's enough of a priss to get offended rather than play along. But other than the occasional sibling-like fit, they're doing great! Thanks again, and I hope you keep reading! =)
Sharon Smith from Northeast Ohio USA on December 06, 2011:
I really enjoyed this and was glad to see it was about cats :) I love cats! Even if they can be brats at times. Don't give up on having more when you get your own place. They eventually work it out. Good luck!
Jennifer Kessner (author) from Pennsylvania on November 20, 2011:
Thanks, I think so too! ^_^ And yes, I've definitely been privy to exactly what sets them apart in personality. xD Unfortunately for Fredward, he's teaching Luna how to be a brat! It's coming right back to hit him in his own face (literally!) when Luna thinks it's a game. Thanks for the comment and for reading! =)
Dwizard on November 19, 2011:
Cute cats, they both look like they have plenty of personality.