Motivate, have Fun, Never Punish

Question:
My nine month old kitten will not come when I call her. My other two cats come when they are called and for supper. I have to chase the kitten around the back yard and eventually lose that argument, and even the feather toy does not lure her into the house any more.

Dr. Nichol:
There are house rules and this naughty kitten needs to comply, darn it! Sadly, cats are different than we are. Despite how much we love them they are not little people in furry suits. But there are similarities. Some parents have complained that managing children is like herding cats.

Modern learning theory, an essential component of my behavior residency, can be applied to any species. For your kitten this will mean consistently reinforcing a desired response with an effective motivator. Most importantly, make sure it’s fun for everybody.

Set the kid up for success by engaging her when she’s food-motivated-just before meals. Gently put her on a table and immediately show her a pinch of her most favorite snack: tuna, bonito fish flakes, mouse guts-she gets to choose. Then pull the food back a few inches and as she approaches it say, “Kitten, come”. Avoid shouting like a drill sergeant; cats don’t march and they don’t take orders.

Repeat this game a few times before every meal.  As your girl catches on you can gradually increase the distance until the table is too small. Continue this playful exercise as you require the kid to listen for your requests from different rooms. When her skills are bullet-proof indoors you can play this sport in the yard, first at short distances. You’ll have so much fun you won’t want to rush the process-which you would never do because it would create universal frustration.

Cats associate the components of events. If frightened in a particular context they learn to avoid. Being chased by you, the person your kitten should trust the most, would reverse any progress. Other demotivators include yelling, punishing, or herding attempts. Miss America, the Nichol family Border collie, is a frequent herder of her two cats. They all have a good time but nobody ever ends up in the right place.