Ellis says that cat owners reinforce negative behaviors when they give into them. “Cats are not necessarily born meowing and screaming at us for food, it’s a behavior that they learned,” Ellis tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.
Instead of indulging Whiskers’ request for an early-morning snack, Ellis recommends adopting an “extinction schedule,” whereby you ignore the behavior entirely until it stops. If cat owners “can be really strong with that extinction schedule and just make sure at every occurrence of that behavior they do not reward it… it will stop,” Ellis says.
In her book, The Trainable Cat, Ellis and her co-author John Bradshaw describe how humans who understand basic feline nature can get their cats to come on command, take medicine and, yes, wait until morning for breakfast.
When it comes to encouraging the positive, Ellis recommends rewards over punishment — especially if the rewards are intermittent. “You don’t give a reward every single time,” Ellis explains. “This sort of keeps the cat guessing, they don’t know if running toward you this time will get the food or it’ll be the next time, and that actually makes the behavior more likely to happen.”
On why cats can be more difficult to train than dogs
Dogs are innately very, very sociable. They have evolved from a social animal, the wolf, and they are incredibly sociable, not just to their own species but to humans. The cat, however, has evolved from a solitary ancestor, the north African Wildcat, and that process of domestication has also been much, much shorter … and therefore the cat hasn’t had the chance to develop these social tendencies that the dog already has.
Because of that, … [cats are] less likely to understand the cues that we may give, for example, things like pointing. They’re less likely to naturally attune to …