If there is one major misconception about training a cat, it’s that a cat cannot be trained. Yep, that little, fuzzy thing that attacks your screen door and pees in your closet is not the mysterious, solitary being that you think it is. Your cat may have trained you to get up at dusk and trained the dog to cower in fear, but few cat lovers realize that they do have the ability to manage the wayward activities of their feline friend.
Helena Kokes is a cat and dog behavior specialist at the Boulder Valley Humane Society, where she serves as the official cat expert on staff. While she’s just working part-time these days, she still helps Boulder-area felinephiles on weekends and over the phone.
Kokes says there is much more known about dog behavior than cat; science has begun to show what type of training works best for dogs, but less is known about cat training.
“Yeah, I’ll see a cat do something, and I’ll be like, ‘That was really neat. I don’t know what that was, but it was neat,’” she said. “So we often need to make informed and educated guesses.”
Indeed, cats are mysterious, and the common misconceptions about them lead to less-than-stellar relationships with their guardians.
“A lot of cats have us trained to make sure we do the things they need us to do, but we can train them,” Kokes said. “That’s a piece that a lot of people don’t understand. Cats haven’t served in the same functions as dogs. … We have cats for hunting or just sitting on your lap. And neither of those functions requires recognizing that they have a brain. But they do. They can be trained and like to be trained.”
With shows like Jackson Galaxy’s My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet and with organizations like BVHS focusing on cat behavior as well as dog, awareness of cat training is growing. Still, she says, many behavior problems with cats begin when someone thinks, “I don’t want to put that much effort into having a pet.”
“I think there might be a mentality that ‘I want to have a pet, but I might not have the time to devote to a dog, so I might have to get an easier pet,’” she said. “But it should not be like that. We think we don’t have to do as much with them outside of the house as a dog. But indoors, you do want to devote time to them.”
She says cats can even be clicker-trained. They can come when you call their names. They can play fetch. And the more people who know what trained cats can do, the more value cats have in people’s minds.
“A lot of people have cats. Unfortunately, the solution to bad behavior was to get rid of the cat. People are getting to the point where they are like, ‘I don’t want to!’ They are looking for other options,” she said. “I want to be there to support that as much as possible.”