cover

Bibliographical Information of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

This publication is listed in the Deutsche Nationalbibliographie of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek; detailed bibliographical information can be accessed under www.dnb.de

© 2017 Sabine Schroll

BoD – Books on Demand GmbH

ISBN 978-3-7431-5084-3

Table of contents

Foreword

While I was working on this book, my blue Abyssinian cat Skyboy fell ill with a malignant lymphoma at the age of eight months. Within just a few weeks, as a young cat, he had already acquired an extremely wide repertoire of terms and words, actions, exercises and tolerance of manipulation. And I could never have dreamed that all these life skills such as only a cat can have would be so soon and so harshly put to the test in the real world of diagnosis and therapy.

Skyboy is – along with all the other cats I have known and loved, and that have influenced me over the years – the cat who affected me most and touched me most deeply. He was the first cat in my kitten kindergarten, and was trained in accordance with this plan. In our ten months together, he changed my point of view and my way of relating to cats more than all the others before him.

Skyboy survived his first birthday by one month – but his legacy lives on…

Be inspired by Skyboy’s star dust, and play with him by giving your cat a touch of him!

Skyboy

… and they can be trained!

For most dog owners these days it is automatic to take their puppy to a puppy school and play group for young dogs, and later on attend a training course. No doubt about it, dogs need to be educated. But cats? … You can hardly expect them to cooperate!

But is this really true? Why shouldn’t cats – who are so exceedingly quick and eager to learn, especially when they expect to be rewarded – actually acquire important skills for living with us, with the help of proactive and systematically devised education? What would it be like if we were to offer cats too a planned and structured course of education, so as to make our life together more beautiful and harmonious?

What does education really mean?

One of the reasons why cats are generally seen as ineducable is a picture that comes from dog training, and sad to say is still frequently met with in that context: a tight collar, a sharp tug on the leash and all manner of drilling and discipline are applied so that eventually a well educated dog emerges, one who immediately obeys all commands without any ifs or buts. But even if, thank goodness, dog training is no longer viewed in such a harsh military light, the idea of using a systematic strategy to train a cat is still strange and unfamiliar, so that educating a cat is likely to be seen, right from the start, as senseless and utterly impossible. A cat should be left to develop freely and independently, and allowed on the whole to do what it wants to do – unless we find its behaviour upsetting. But all this bears only a very peripheral relation – if it has one at all – to educating in the true sense of the word!

Perhaps it doesn’t actually have to do with cats, but rather with the way in which training is seen, generally speaking, and the way it is carried out – could that be the reason why cats are still thought to be ineducable? Or perhaps it simply has to do with the fact that the main focus of attention, in educating a cat, is on telling it what not to do… and the traditional deterrent that training relies on is punishments which the cat finds incomprehensible.

It is exciting, to begin with, if we just take close look at the origin and deeper meaning of education in various languages. From the etymological point of view, the German word for it, erziehen, is connected with the Latin educare, to feed or nourish, as well as with educere, to bring forth. In an extended sense, then, we can see education as a bringing forth and a feeding – which includes feeding with knowledge, of course. We can also see a hint in educare of the English to care – to look after someone, see to their needs or simply care for them. The German word erziehen is made up of pulling.

Taken all in all, training or education in this literal sense of the word has nothing – nothing whatsoever – to do with drill, discipline or pressure!

Educating means pulling, not pushing!

And based on that fundamental principle you can educate cats – and other animals as well, for that matter – very effectively and above all with complete success. The first step in the direction of successful feline education, then, is to do away with this restrictive idea of unlimited obedience (also in relation to not doing) and create a new and much more all-embracing picture of the well educated animal. This picture of feline education involves learning and teaching, conveying and understanding information, it is concerned with security and caring for your cat. The goal of educating a cat in this way is to put at the animal’s disposal – and our own – an extended set of competencies for more effective communication. As a result, cats will acquire a better understanding of our human everyday life, in which they are so closely involved. It should give cats the possibility of dealing with human demands and expectations on the everyday level, along with the necessities of care and medical treatment, or at least coping with these things with a minimum of stress. Proper training should give cats greater psychological robustness and flexibility – partly in view of the fact that they can then rely on more reliable information from their human friend. This kind of educating should create a basis for understanding between two so very different species, human beings and cats – which works to the advantage of both.

Why should cats be educated?

Seen from this different angle, it gradually becomes clear that it makes a great deal of sense – and is in fact possible – to educate cats. Strictly speaking, practically all cats do undergo a certain fundamental education, even when it is not deliberately and actively instituted by human beings.

Basically speaking, there is no reason why cats should not be left as they have been brought up by their mother cats, if it were not for a major But…

In close cohabitation with human beings, and especially in conditions where the cat is completely without the possibility of roaming around freely, there are demands which are not so self-explanatory and obvious to cats as they are to humans. Left to themselves, cats will not have any particular interest in acquiring the relevant information, and actually will not have any way of doing so. They would simply go on being cats, just learning the things proper to a cat and nothing else – and in an independent cat’s life, there wouldn’t be any kind of problem about this.

But in close cohabitation with humans they need other, additional abilities – life skills (as Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills term them in their book for puppies) – in order to make it possible for the cat, in its relationship with its human, to live in a really relaxed, healthy and even happy way.

This starts right away with the cat’s first car trip in a carrier, continues with the creative use of the bath mat instead of the cat’s toilet provided and cheerful acrobatics on house plants or curtains, and often ends with the undesirable use of the dining table, giving pills, tooth cleaning or grooming. Misunderstandings between the two species, feline and human, are as common as their different needs. A good deal of disharmony and suffering on both sides could be avoided, if even just a few of the inter-species problems and barriers to understanding could be overcome.

The goal of feline education, then, is to enhance the life quality of the cat – but not at the expense of the cat’s owners, who are so often willing to demote themselves to the status of ‘tin opener’ and servant, or practically the slave, of their cats. Living alongside human beings, and adjusting to their habits as opportunistically as possible, does not mean that the cat and the human really understand one another. At latest when you want something from some cats which they are unwilling to accept – and it may be something as elementary as letting you pick them up, grooming them, or giving them eye drops – the good relationship comes to an end. The cat suddenly gets scared and defends itself against the presumed predatory animal who is the human being, who has now taken on unpredictable and incomprehensible threatening traits. Mutual trust, fragile at best, is now well and truly cracked, and after a few more times when you stuff the cat in the transport box or give it pills the cat has definitely decided that this is no longer fun. Cats are really quick to learn, and will start to anticipate even the tiniest irregularity in everyday routine as the indication of potentially dangerous and certainly stressful human interference. In the worst case scenario, this interplay of cat and human can develop into a chronic state of anxiety, bringing in its train more and more problematic symptoms – house soiling, urinary marking, defensive aggression and even illnesses brought on by chronic stress.

Along with health and the sense of physical wellbeing, freedom from constant anxiety is an important aspect of life quality – and when the cat cannot even understand or make sense of everyday activities in its human environment, the avoidance of specific stress-related events, like visits to the vet, is not going to help much. Quite the reverse is the case – the less frequently a cat is put in its carrier, and experiences the in itself quite harmless handling of a veterinary examination, the greater its fear will be of these events which overshadow its peaceful and predictable everyday routine.

But vice versa, there can also be problems when cats want something, or need something, from us human beings. With breathtaking rapidity they learn what activities are going to enable them to reach their goal – and only in very rare cases will these be desirable patterns of behaviour. This is above all down to the fact that the learning process is a very one-sided affair, because the cat learns from its own success without our even having noticed what is going on. So when you come down to it, undesirable behaviour is most likely to deliver the goods, because it triggers the speediest reaction in human beings. Feline behaviour that is actually seen as desirable, on the other hand, will be regarded as normal and taken for granted – to such an extent that the cat is only really noticed when it does something inappropriate or forbidden.

The human-feline relationship is thus characterised by mutual incomprehension as well as by different needs, and can actually suffer seriously as a result. In the long term cat owners then resort to hopeless punishments, inducing anxiety in the cat, resign themselves or avoid the issue. Sadly this often ends with the cat being denied any medical care, attention and prophylaxis – either altogether, or at least for a very long time – because it results in too much stress. In the context of daily life, this means that cat owners feel themselves to be tormented and terrorised by their cats, because the animals seem deliberately to be peeing in the plant pots, meowing at the bedroom door or scratching the sofa. Or else the cat lives in a state of permanent insecurity, because although it can learn a lot of things, it cannot comprehend why it should be scolded for totally normal cat activities like scratching, peeing or communicating.

To sum up, we can say that educating a cat consists in

Taken all in all these are good reasons why we should take up the challenge, and educate cats in a deliberated way, proactively and following a specific plan.

It’s a matter of creating a relationship

This active approach to educate your cat brings a whole bunch of practical benefits – and among them is a completely new, and essentially more intensive dimension in your relationship with your cat. This is because, in order to apply these techniques, you will have to observe your cat in a much more conscious way, from a quite different inner standpoint. You will need to look for the cat’s motives and needs, and when it comes to clicker training, you will even be able to see how the cat is thinking. Even if you have known or had many cats in your life so far, when you engage in the proactive training of a young cat there is a high probability that you will experience a new kind of relationship and communication with your cat such as you never dreamed of before.

Educating cats is a challenge

Even though cats grasp things quickly and are speedy learners, educating a cat nonetheless remains in a certain sense a challenge. Cats do learn extremely quickly – in fact you might almost say that they learn too fast, for when they have once found out how to irritate us humans or produce a reaction, it will be more and more difficult to change the habits. So the important thing is to start the cat’s education at the earliest possible stage!

And early, in this context, means thinking about it even before the cat arrives, being concerned with the cat’s education and getting interactively engaged with it from the moment the cat arrives at your home.

For starters there is always a motivation, which will be examined more closely in a later chapter. Recognising what a cat wants, and what at this moment constitutes a reward for the cat, is first and foremost a learning process for us humans. Rewarding cats is in fact not always an easy thing – unless you have a very greedy or playful young cat. Or even better a greedy and playful kitten. The younger a cat is, the better the chance that you can find something which will easily get it excited, which represents fun and enjoyment for your kitten.

And likewise the opposite of rewards – punishing cats, that is – is as senseless as it is difficult. Direct punishment teaches cats one thing above all: Do what you want, but only when no one is looking! Yelling at them, squirting them with water and the various forms of physical punishment are incomprehensible to cats, damaging the relationship and the sensitive trust of the cat in the large animal that is the human being. The two typical reactions of the cat to punishment are flight or aggressive defence, in the best case scenario just ignoring it. Neither the one nor the other supports the desired learning process, because the information content of punishment for the cat approximates to zero. Meanwhile the cat’s stress level goes into the red zone. Both factors are an obstacle to successful learning!

Cats, moreover, are not really team players, although of course they are thoroughly social animals. By contrast with dogs, they are not dependent on social structures in order to survive, and they do not need a team to overpower their small prey like mice. If a cat finds itself in a difficult situation, it will generally try to solve the problem on its own. Unlike dogs, it isn’t typically going to turn to human beings for social support but will deal with the problem alone. Encouraging cooperation in certain situations, getting the cat to rely on human beings as a source of information, is one of the fundamental goals of educating cats, and in today’s world represents an important life skill. With dogs this is practically something to be taken for granted – but with cats, it is something that has to be worked on and earned.

And finally we come to the biggest challenge of all in educating kittens – their persistence and endurance. What pitiful hunters they would be – in real outdoor life conditions, condemned to death by starvation – if they were to let themselves be discouraged by occasional setbacks or minor failures. A small reverse is not going to hold back any active, inquisitive and well-motivated kitten from doing something that actually does promise to be entertaining, exciting or delicious.

This also explains the recurrent sense of frustration when a cheerful young cat jumps onto the table for the umpteenth time, although it has been forbidden to do this umpteen times already. It’s not possible that it doesn’t get the message! The problem here is not necessarily the cat’s obtuseness, but rather its exceptional level of performance, combined with high motivation when faced with a lack of any equally exciting alternatives. Not on the table definitely conveys too little information to have the right effect on its own!

There are two essential reasons why a cat will always go on making new attempts, with exceptional stubbornness and endurance, in order to reach its goals.

Either it needs something really urgently – though need here may well be a relative term, sometimes representing wanting rather than real necessity. Or else it rates its chances of getting what it wants as being after all quite high. Even the tiniest doubt on the human side is enough to encourage the cat to keep trying – just keep at it for a while longer, and it will be in the bag.

And secondly, cats have an easy time of it when we are not attentive – just a few successful experiences are so effective in confirming an attitude that it will last their whole life long.

So when a cat is tiresome, in the sense of tiresomely persistent, you should ask yourself the crucial question What does the cat really want? Cats generally are not tiresome just for the sake of being tiresome, but because they need (or want) something. And it is completely senseless trying to teach a cat in this kind of situation on the basis of just ignoring or punishing it for the sake of not letting it get away with anything! To begin with, this only ensures that the cat will be even more persistent – and secondly, to educate a cat means caring and providing, giving it information and not just ignoring it.

The great educational challenge, then, is to recognise what the cat needs – its motivation – and how to establish a controlled equilibrium between demanding and getting what it wants.

The true art of feline education is to make use of the cat’s motivation and persistence, and steer it by suitable direction into acceptable channels.

Educating cats – won’t it be terribly time-consuming?

Time is of course a very relative commodity – and what after all does a lot of time or a little time mean, in the context of cat education? Less time in comparison with educating kids – that is certainly the case, cats can be pretty well and truly educated in six months to a year! A lot of time in comparison with the way people have related to their cats in the past – again, that is a definite yes!

Carrying out the complete educational programme for kittens described in this book certainly calls for a much greater time investment than has generally been dedicated to the education of young cats in the past.

At all events it changes the way in which you spend time with a kitten in quite crucial respects – the relationship is more conscious, more attentive and very probably more understanding in the most literal sense!

If you see the education of a young cat, and the development of a heartfelt relationship, as a time commitment – in a sense suggesting the waste of time – such an attitude is liable to prompt the question whether you are willing to be a responsible cat owner in the first place…

But what is a whole lot more important than the time involved is the undivided attentiveness and awareness that an active educational programme calls for!

Kittens need lots of small training units, each of them calling for just a few minutes, in some cases only seconds. These can easily be incorporated in the context of normal everyday activities. You just have to remember to do them!

It doesn’t take a lot of time to invite a young cat to sit in the wish box, to involve the starting box in evening games or to call for a nose target from time to time so that the game will continue or remain under control.1 Likewise quite normal forms of manipulation, like holding still, grooming, teeth cleaning or giving pills can be incorporated quite easily in everyday cuddle or play sessions – it only changes the nature and intention of the contact a little in an educational direction, to which positive feedback is added as information on a regular basis.

The exciting thing about educating a kitten – which actually makes it easy – is that for the most part it doesn’t matter to the cat what learning games you play with it, as long as it all stays appetising, cheerful and friendly!

The real success in cat training will be when the little exercises happen in a quite automatic way as a part of your everyday routine, and your adult cat too comes to see the things it has learned as the most normal thing in the world – even if that still makes it stand out quite a bit from the crowd.

Although the first six to ten months of an intensive programme of training call for a lot of input, in terms of time you remain independent and can carry out the greater part of the exercises at home – even the weekly excursions to other places can easily be integrated with the educational routine, in the form of a family visit or a trip to the vet.

But in any case it takes a certain amount of time and energy to focus on the cat’s motives and motivation, to think up new things to attract its interest, to observe the cat or systematically involve varied learning routines in everyday situations.

For both humans and for cats, learning is fundamentally a process lasting the whole of a lifetime – it never comes to an end! And however much experience you have and however many cats you have known, there are always new aspects and refinements to discover.

It also takes an inner attitude of patience – the feeling that you have all the time in the world – when you are working with cats, even with active young cats. It is no accident that cats have a certain touch of the meditative – hectic events and headlong decisions are foreign to them, except in situations of crisis.

In observing your cat, learn to see these small pauses for reflection, moments of considered waiting in the course of a game, not as indifference and boredom but rather as meditation in an everyday context. There really are times where kittens don’t want to cooperate – where they sit there and act as if they had never heard of a nose target, and just don’t want to comply with an invitation to fulfil their part of the deal. Here it helps just to give the cat time – any kind of impatience or tensely raised expectations will only prolong the waiting phase.

And don’t worry – feline upbringing works even if you only carry out a small part of the exercises, without adhering rigidly to the training plan – the effect of these little exercises is enormous!


1 Translator’s note: these terms will be explained in detail later on.

The raw materials

In the nature of things, not all kittens have the same abilities when it comes to learning. As with children, there are lively kittens who are eager to learn, and then again there are ones who are a bit slower on the uptake, or who are perhaps just less motivated to learn what we want them to. Not all kittens have the same interests and talents – some like carrying toys around and learn quickly to fetch, others prefer climbing and jumping and are not so keen on keeping still, and others yet again are passionate about food and will learn amazing tricks just for a tiny treat. But all cats are able to acquire the most important fundamental concepts for living with us!

Two factors are mixed in with the individual personality of a kitten – genetics, and the environment. The two influences cannot easily be marked off from one another, as the genetic basis often provides only the potential for future development. Only the right influences from the environment at the right time – for example, based on an encouraging education in the first weeks and months of life – enable the cat’s full potential to unfold.

One of the most important genetic factors is the breed. Cats have probably only been domesticated for around 9000 years in all – nothing like so long as dogs. And far and away most domestic cats today are still in the first phase of domestication, where animals live together with human beings and are used by them, but are not yet subjected to any kind of selective breeding through the choice and vetting of partners for procreation.

The first cat breeds came from the Middle East and the Far East, where the history of the cat’s domestication actually takes its origin. These ancient cat breeds include the Persian, the Siamese and the Burmese, the Abyssinian, the Egyptian Mau or Angora and the Turkish Van. But even for these, the intensive and selective choice of mates and deliberate development of the breed is only a few centuries old. Domestic cats remain free on the whole to choose their own partners, so that their gene pool still results in a colourful mixture of many different characteristics and survival skills, which do not always make cohabitation with the small predator that is the cat an easy matter.

This is because purebred cats are selected not just for optical features, such as fur colour and patterning, length of hair and physical build, but also more or less deliberately with a view to their friendliness to humans and social behaviour. Breeders are all the more eager to have offspring from a purebred cat when they are not just pretty and successful in cat shows, but are also open and friendly with people, good mothers and well socialised in living with other cats.

With some modern and exceptionally attractive cat breeds like the Bengal or the Savannah, however, interbreeding with wild species of small cats has again resulted in a sometimes explosive but certainly very demanding mixture of the domestic and the wild animal.

And although the genetic foundations are very important, they represent only one side of the equation. Even during the pregnancy countless forming environmental influences are already affecting the unborn kittens – like chronic stress on the part of the mother, for example, or dietary factors. The best genetic mix of a purebred cat will not give the animal a head start if it is exposed to unfavourable conditions and finds no soil in which it can flourish.

The second decisive factor for the cat’s personality, then, is the environment – particularly during the first few weeks of life, when the kitten has experiences which will have an abiding and fundamental influence for the rest of its life. Nature’s original idea was that a kitten who was scarcely formed in developmental terms, because blind and deaf, would be better able to adapt in a flexible way to its special environment by undergoing individual development subsequently. Well – this plan failed to take account of cases where kittens learn about life in the freedom of the farmyard and then move to a tiny city apartment on the fourth floor, where they come from an expansive Greek hotel garden to a terraced house estate, or from a female single household to the turbulence of a teaming patchwork family. Such fundamental changes in the living environment represent a major challenge even for the most adaptable kitten – sometimes an insuperable one…

sensitive phase.