Cat Training A-to-Z: Brief Glossary of Terms


Desensitize: Getting a cat used to a scenario that causes her distress by gradually presenting the situation in a manner that does not upset the cat.

Cat on Cat Tree
Cat trees, toys and food puzzles are all valuable forms of enrichment.

Distraction(s): Sounds, smells, sights and other stimuli that detract from a cat’s ability to remain focused or perform what’s being asked. A low-distraction environment is ideal for training.


Enrichment: Any attempt to promote a cat’s physical and psychological well being through specific activities (food puzzles that mimic hunting, for example) or changes to the environment (cat trees that facilitate climbing).

Extinction: Ending a behavior by removing reinforcement. For example, a cat paws at her owner to get attention; if the person ignores the cat while she’s pawing, removing the reward of attention, that behavior ceases to be rewarding and the cat will usually stop pawing. Extinction does not require punishment; instead, it relies on removing reinforcement of unwanted behavior.

Extinction burst: When previously reinforced behavior no longer works to get the desired reward, pet owners may see a surge of stronger, more intense behavior as the cat makes one last effort to get the reinforcement she seeks. A cat who has been rewarded for pawing may do so with increased gusto when she realizes that she’s being ignored. It is important to note that when a behavior is no longer reinforced, it can sometimes get worse — and more intense — before it fades away.


Fading the lure: The process of taking the lure out of the training so the cat learns to do the requested behavior in response to another cue, such as a hand signal or word. Fading the lure teaches the cat to do the behavior without being dependent upon a treat being in the trainer’s hand. To fade the lure, certain tricks can be used, such as keeping a treat in the hand doing the luring but rewarding with a treat given with the other hand. From there, progress to holding the hand shaped like it has a treat but with no treat inside. Next, gradually decrease the size of the hand movement needed to cue the behavior or shift the behavior to a new cue.

Fear-free or fearless vet visits: A low-stress approach popular in the veterinary community and other associated practices, like boarding, grooming and training, in which handling, interactions and procedures are done in a manner designed to keep the cat as calm as possible. Other strategies include changing the environment, using medications when necessary and offering rewards to encourage willing cooperation from the cat. In every case, the goal is to keep the experience as positive as possible.

Functional analysis, or the ABC of a behavior: Functional analysis looks at three components of behavior: antecedent, behavior and consequence. Behavior issues can by analyzed using this approach, starting with what elicits the behavior. For a behavior like mouthing a human’s hands, the antecedent might be a person sitting down on the couch or floor. The behavior is what the cat does, such as coming near, freezing, pouncing and then mouthing hands with body language indicative of play. Finally, the consequence is what happens to the cat when she mouths — for example, the person responds by allowing the cat to play with his fingers. The ABC analysis can help identify both the problem and the solution. In this example, playing with the cat reinforces the pouncing and mouthing, because the cat is being rewarded for her behavior.


Generalize: A behavior is considered generalized when a cat can reliably be asked to perform the specific behavior in a variety of different contexts. For example, a cat may consistently respond to a request to sit when she’s in the kitchen, but this behavior may not be as reliable in a different area of the home, like the living room. Cats generalize to a certain degree, but for behaviors to be reliably performed anywhere, they need to be practiced in a wide range of circumstances.

Go to your spot: A cat who is taught to go to her spot (or station) learns to go to a specific area and wait there until she is released. A typical spot is a perch, crate or bed.


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