It’s a strange little timeline: Housecats were domesticated around 10,000 years ago. Dogs were possibly domesticated twice over the past tens of thousands of years. And yet the dog-person-versus-cat-person battle seems to extend infinitely in either direction, a debate with no beginning and certainly no end. And in the meantime, the internet becomes ever more chock-full of goofy quotes expressing support for one side or the other. Like this from the comedian Jeff Valdez: “Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through snow.”
Well. That may be true, Jeff Valdez, but just look at this video for some of the things you can get them to do: Jumping through hoops! Shaking hands on a balance beam! Rolling on top of a ball! Granted, these are circus cats, not your average household feline, but even the most seasoned of performers was just an untrained kitten once upon a time.
Cats can be trained, is the point, even in more mundane activities. Training a cat to use a litter box is a low-effort activity — it’s in their nature to want to clean up their own messes, possibly as a way of keeping away predators or avoiding a show of aggression (anyone who’s seen Meet the Parents may recall that they can also be trained to use, and flush, a human toilet). They can be trained to stop meowing. And as Julie Hecht noted earlier this week in Scientific American, they can be trained to use a scratching post instead of a brand-new couch.
But still, Hecht argued, we tend to focus our pet-behavior attention on dogs, leaving cats understudied and misunderstood — and possibly harming pet-owner relationships.
“The perception that cats are untrainable is false, and it can hinder happy unions between cats and their people,” she wrote. “Dogs and cats learn every day, and through training, we can harness the associations they make — even explicitly create associations — and improve lives.”
Part of the misconception stems from the idea that training would work the same for cats as it does for our more pliable, more obedient canine pals. But pet training isn’t a one-size-fits-all exercise, especially across species; cats aren’t just smaller, more stubborn dogs, and won’t respond to the same techniques. For example, praise — often the most powerful currency with dogs, who evolved to endlessly seek out human attention — is often useless with cats, who just really don’t care all that much. A more effective strategy might be a snack, accompanied by a clicking noise. (Clicker training, originally developed for use with marine mammals, has proven effective in cats as well: Click when they’re being rewarded for doing something right, and eventually they’ll come to associate the sound with the desired behavior, even without the treat.) And behaviorists argue that the best way to teach a cat is often to simply do nothing — ignore the bad stuff when you’re not rewarding the good.
There’s also the misguided idea that domesticated felines — independent, seemingly indifferent creatures that they are — are locked in a perma-battle for dominance with their owners (or have already won it), and that training them would have to somehow involve breaking this sense of power. But the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior cautions against this mind-set for any domesticated animal, cats included. “People who rely on dominance theory to train their pets may need to regularly threaten them with aggressive displays or repeatedly use physical force,” the organization declared in a 2008 position paper. “Conversely, pets subjected to threats or force may not offer submissive behaviors. Instead, they may react with aggression, not because they are trying to be dominant but because the human threatening them makes them afraid … [B]ehavior modification and training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors, avoiding the reinforcement of undesirable behaviors, and striving to address the underlying emotional state and motivations.”
And staying patient. Animal trainer Samantha Martin, who runs the circus-cat act in the video above (it’s called Amazing Acro-Cats), has called cat training “a negotiation,” explaining: “Dogs are true professionals, but cats are more like employees who you would fire if they were people.” If you’re not going to fire ‘em, though, you might as well try and get them to do your bidding. Or something like it, anyway.