Cat training is a tricky business. To learn more about how to overcome this difficult challenge, we spoke to animal behaviorist Bash Dibra.
My friend Sharon was recently complaining that she had to buy new living room curtains because her two young cats had virtually shredded her old ones. “I bought these ones second-hand because I’m sure they’ll also be wrecked before long,” she told me. “I just don’t know how to stop the kittens from climbing them.” Like Sharon, a lot of people find themselves making allowances for their cats’ behavior issues because they don’t believe that felines can be taught to do otherwise. It’s a sentiment shared by many, but it’s also misleading, as we discovered when we spoke to Bash Dibra, an animal behaviorist and trainer who has worked with many celebrity animals and has authored several best-selling books on training both dogs and cats.
AW: Can cats really be trained?
BD: That’s the first thing most people say to me: “I didn’t know you could train cats,” or “Cats can be trained?” Yes, every animal can be trained. You just have to understand how to communicate on their terms. In my book Cat Speak, I encourage people to understand that you have to think like a cat. You have to wear a different hat for different situations.
AW: How does training a cat differ from training a dog?
BD: I try to get my clients to understand that with a dog you tell them to do things; with a cat you ask them to do things. So training and behavior modification for cats is almost suggestive. It’s all operant conditioning, but you almost have to suggest it and make them feel like they’re being asked rather than told to do something, while in reality you’re modifying and shaping their behavior to make them do things.
AW: What are some of the most common issues people have with their cats?
BD: One of the biggest things is scratching the furniture. People see it as destructive but it’s actually a natural behavior for cats. It keeps their nails clean and short and it’s also a form of behavioral marking. You have to understand that’s why they’re doing it and then redirect the behavior to something that fulfils that need. You need a good scratching post, but not with carpet or something that looks like furniture because the cat won’t know whether to use his or yours. Use a twine like sisal. Some people like to use cardboard and then wonder why the cat starts ripping up all the cardboard boxes in the house. He’s confused. I get the cat to use the scratching post by making it fun, encouraging him to play with it, and after awhile he learns to enjoy using it.
AW: What other kinds of problems do you see?
DB: Another big one is litter problems, when cats urinate all over the place. You need to understand the elements behind the behavior. It might be because of the litter, so we need to figure out which is the better litter for the cat. Or maybe it’s a health issue, so you want to go to the vet and make sure he gets the medical care he needs.
AW: Most cats seem to hate being taken anywhere. Can you train them to enjoy trips?
DB: It’s best to train the cat while he’s still a kitten. I start by encouraging the cat to get into his kennel cab every morning in the bedroom by tapping on the cage. Then you carry the kitten from the bedroom to the kitchen, open the carrier and feed the cat. He thinks, “Wow, that was a nice trip.” After awhile, when you tap on the carrier, he runs inside thinking, “I’m going to get fed. How exciting.” So that makes traveling fun. After awhile you can try this in other settings, like taking the cat to a neighbor’s house in the carrier (if you have a good neighbor) and feeding him there. Then it becomes a pattern. It’s what is called operant conditioning, where there’s a positive end to everything.
AW: A lot of people have trouble with cats who jump on the counter or kitchen table. How do your discourage that?
DB: In Cat Speak, I talk about how cats communicate, the sounds they make. Certain sounds mean certain things. So you can create a language that tells the cat when he’s doing something wrong. If you go “Psst, psst!” when the cat is on the counter, then “Off, off,” you get his attention and he learns that he can’t jump up when you’re eating. If you give mixed messages, though, like some people do, the problem will continue. If the cat jumps up while you’re eating or preparing a meal and you give him treats or food, then you’re telling him to join you while you’re eating. So you need to be clear and consistent with your messages. The majority of problems that exist are usually human error; the animals are subjected to mixed messages. You can use the same language messages for other problems as well, such as scratching furniture.
AW: You’ve done a lot of work training animals for various celebrities. What are a couple of your favorite stories?
DB: Mariah Carey has and loves cats and was really surprised to learn that they could be trained. She remarked that the cats seemed to enjoy us telling the dogs to do things, and all they had to do was sit and watch. I said true, but we can also get the cats to join the bandwagon. She said, really? You can train a cat? That really surprised her, so that was a very fun moment. I was also hired by another client, a psychiatrist, to train her dog to do pet therapy. I was training the dog to do stunts and be entertaining and her cat would sit and stare at us. I told her that I could train the cat to do the same things and again my client was really surprised. Soon, the cat was doing exactly what the dog did – waving, lying down, rolling over and jumping through hoops. Now they both do it together to see who’s best.
AW: Do you have any other tips or advice?
DB: I like to train cats to wear a leash from a young age. I want them to enjoy wearing a leash and collar because you can do more things and go out into the real world more. If you get into the habit when they’re young, you can travel the world together.
Cat people love their cats but they often say: “You can’t make them do anything, so leave them alone.” That’s not the case. Again, you need to remember that you have to ask cats to do things, and learn to talk to them on their terms. You can enjoy making things happen but you have to be open-minded to allow them to happen. That’s what it’s all about.
Bash Dibra is an animal behaviorist with many years of training experience. He is also the author of five books on responsible pet ownership, training, and the proper treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. His titles include Dog Speak, Cat Speak and the recently released Star Pet: How to Make Your Pet a Star. Bash has trained the dogs and cats of many celebrities, including Matthew Broderick, Mariah Carey, Joan Rivers, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and has appeared on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America and numerous other TV shows. Visit www.pawsacrossamerica.com or www.bashdibra.com.