PetPsych

Animal Behavior & Training

Clicker Training and its Impact on an Animal's Emotional State

With reference to the learning styles, discuss the possible effects of using discs and/or clickers on the emotional state of the dogs and cats undergoing behavioural rehabilitation.

The debate over whether animals experience conscious emotions has raged for well over a century. There are those who postulate that differentiating between affective states such as fear, anxiety, terror and apprehension is impossible in a brain that does not classify the world in linguistic terms (1). And there are those who claim the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that basic emotional processes emerge from homologous brain mechanisms in all mammals (2).

Learning by association

Regardless of the fact they are unable to articulate their emotions in human terms, how and what animals learn is inextricably linked with how they feel at any given moment, and how the consequences of a response to any given stimulus make them feel (see diagram - Source: Lindsay, S: Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. 1 – Adaptation and Learning, Iowa State University Press 2000). By being aware of this, cat and dog owners, trainers and therapists can use it as a basis, not only for training, but as a positive, secure structure in which an animal undergoing a behavioural treatment programme can learn to alter its responses without coming under threat, real or perceived.

Classical conditioning (i.e. making associations between an emotionally arousing stimulus and a neutral one) and operant conditioning (i.e. making associations between an emotionally arousing stimulus and a response) (1) are two of the main principles of learning, a useful definition of which is that it is a relatively permanent change in an organism’s capacity for behaviour as the result of various types of experience (3). Learning plays a profound role in an animal’s success or failure in adjusting to its social and physical surroundings (4), and, as the associations get repeated, results in a permanent change to the wiring of the brain. Neural connections strengthen, resulting in an increase in the speed and strength of the response.

Clickers: how they work

Clickers were already being used in animal training in the 1940s, but only achieved widespread popularity with the publication of Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog in 1984 (5). In the jargon of learning theory, the clicker functions as a conditioned reinforcer (aka secondary reinforcer). This is an initially meaningless signal that is repeatedly presented prior to or at the same time as a primary reinforcer (usually food, but can also be praise, affection, exercise or toys – in fact, whatever the animal wants or needs). Through experience, it acquires reinforcing properties of its own where previously there were none.

A crucial aspect of reinforcement lies in the timing. If the reward is not delivered within a split second of the animal performing a certain behaviour, the association is lost and there is a danger of reinforcing a different, possibly unwanted, behaviour. But with accurate timing, the clicker acts as a bridging stimulus between the desired behaviour and obtaining the treat, and enables the trainer to communicate to the animal precisely what he/she liked in its behaviour. At the same time, the animal learns that good things come from its trainer/owner. This is how animals learn - by the immediate results of their actions and the association of events that occur closely together in time (5).

Positive feedback

These are the mechanics of clicker training. More importantly, clicking puts the control firmly in the paws of the trainee, who, in effect, comes to perform certain behaviours to make the trainer ‘click’. So reinforcement gives an animal greater control over consequences. Pryor talks of animals becoming happy and excited as they become conscious of exactly which behaviour is being reinforced by the clicker, learning which is almost certainly accompanied by physiological or psychological changes as a certain need is satisfied (5). For a hungry dog, the opportunity to work to acquire a treat is worth the effort (i.e. something pleasant starts → positive reinforcement). By sitting to acquire a treat, the animal learns that its actions can control the environment, an outcome that is intrinsically rewarding (4) and free of stress.

In short, the reward mechanism acts as a ‘positive feedback’ device (6) by letting the animal know it has behaved correctly. Such a positive, humane (i.e. non-aversive) method promotes a calm, focused emotional state, and is therefore more conducive to learning – particularly in an animal already in a state of high emotional arousal. This sets the animal up for success, and forms a solid platform on which to build when the criteria are raised.

In the same way, when an animal discovers that a particular response terminates or avoids the presentation of an unpleasant stimulus (i.e. something unpleasant ends → negative reinforcement), he has gained control and obtained valuable information about how to behave appropriately without becoming confused or fearful. Importantly, he also has the opportunity to try something else.

If an animal’s cerebral cortex is thus engaged, and he is continuously encouraged to solve problems or focus on a task, then the limbic system will remain inhibited, and problematic emotions that prevent learning - such as those outlined below - can be avoided. This is why the use of the clicker as a conditioned reinforcer is invaluable. Not only does it allow an animal to find solutions and gain control over the consequences of his behaviour in a positive, non-aversive setting; as a training method it indirectly helps strengthen the frontal cortex, ensuring the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, remains less reactive. Both are crucial when rehabilitating animals with behaviour problems.

Other advantages of clicker training cited by Pryor include a high rate of retention and an acceleration of learning. Plus, once the animal has got the hang of the clicker, trainers can use it to get him to do things that would probably never occur naturally. In other words, the trainer can shape an animal’s behaviour by breaking down the component parts of a behaviour and reinforcing success (i.e. continuous reinforcement) at each stage as the animal gets closer to the desired result. As progress is made, the trainer would start to reinforce only the best responses and ignoring the others (i.e. intermittent reinforcement). Withholding the reward leads to frustration, making the animal try harder with various responses until it succeeds. Mild stress such as this can improve the ability to learn and lay down memories. Conversely, prolonged stress will affect the brain’s inability to do this (detailed below).

Safe arena

With their superior auditory capabilities, both cats and dogs are extremely sensitive to sound, and trainers have long recognised this by using a variety of tones in their verbal prompts. Human voices however, are never totally consistent and the clicker presents an advantage here – it always sounds the same (i.e. devoid of emotion), meaning there is no room for misunderstanding between animal and trainer. Also, some dogs may be pre-wired to respond to an auditory cue (e.g. terriers are often very reactive to the smallest sounds). Instinctive responses such as these are often internally rewarding and can be taken advantage of in training.

Any creature that has been trained using positive reinforcers as opposed to aversives becomes playful, intelligent, curious, and interested in its trainer (5). The method, free as it is from fear, provides an arena for the animal to be creative and find a way to get its trainer to click, safe in the knowledge that the worst that can happen if it gets something wrong is that there will be no click.

By providing an environment in which the animal is effectively in control, it also provides an animal with the choice of performing another behaviour. The animal is therefore able to relax once the structure is clear, leading him to the addictive emotional state of relief. In other words, as appropriate behaviours are always rewarded by pleasant outcomes, they become reinforcing (i.e. positive reinforcement) and, as stated in Thorndike’s Law of Effect, are more likely to be performed more frequently. For a cat or dog undergoing behavioural rehabilitation, a clearly defined set of parameters where he can calmly focus his attention on the owner/trainer (as opposed to worrying over external distractions) is invaluable in building confidence and motivation. As the stakes are raised, the animal will experiment to ensure he gets what he wants because he has been set up to expect a lot of positive events.

The case against punishment

An important element of successful learning is to provide an animal with as much information as possible about its current behaviour, which is exactly what the clicker does. Traditionally though, if an animal does something deemed inappropriate, aversive/corrective techniques have often been favoured.

Punishment is aimed at weakening/suppressing an undesired response by presenting an unpleasant stimulus (i.e. something unpleasant starts → positive punishment) or removing a pleasant stimulus (i.e. something pleasant ends → negative punishment), but its disadvantages are many. It does not allow for the provision of an alternative behaviour, so the animal may substitute an even more undesirable response. It may also lead to fear or dislike of the punisher, possibly triggering an aggressive reaction. Finally, timing and intensity must be immaculate (almost impossible) to make it effective. In an animal already exhibiting a behaviour problem, the potential pitfalls are enormous.

From the animal’s perspective, his behaviour has failed to get an important resource or to avoid or escape an aversive or dangerous situation, meaning he has less control over events. In fact, he has actually been set up to expect negative events, and ultimately failure. Animals seem to show every indication that they have some second-order comprehension of their goals (expectancies), and if barriers to success are imposed, they persist in quite flexible but insistent ways. Expectancy constantly undergoes adjustment according to whether predictions have been accurate and whether control has been successful, and this general process of confirmation and disconfirmation is a vital link between performance and learning. Dogs habitually exposed to excessive non-contingent punishment learn from experience that they can neither predict nor control aversive events. If nothing works, they often exhibit frustration and anger, and eventually give up (learned helplessness) and ‘extinguish’ (but rarely forget) (4, 7).

Punishment vs learning

Importantly, in a punitive environment, learning is unlikely to take place. The Miller-Mowrer theory of avoidance learning states that, what an animal learns in a situation where it actively seeks to avoid punishment is not to avoid the punishment at all, but to escape from the initially neutral (but which become conditioned by fear) stimuli, which warn it of the impending punishment. By blocking an avoidance response, an owner/trainer may succeed in eliminating it, but only at the cost of leaving intact - and perhaps actually increasing - the degree of fear for the situation which is being avoided (6).

If an animal is fearful, excessively frustrated or otherwise stressed out, its cerebral cortex becomes inhibited, meaning it will literally be unable to think straight. This is because the regulatory cortical functions become temporarily disturbed by the activation of the limbic system, which prepares the body for its emergency fight or flight response to a perceived threat or aversive situation. In neurophysiological terms, dopamine and NE are released into the prefrontal cortex and suspend its efficient functioning. Obviously this is undesirable in any training situation, and helps explain why punishment is not usually effective (8).

When an animal perceives an emergency, hazard avoidance behaviour is not only indicative of a high state of arousal of the autonomic nervous system - it generally also produces rigid, reflexive behaviour due to its being species-specific in nature. Learning is unlikely to take place in such circumstances, especially as punishment may lead to an increase in anxiety levels, confusion over what is being punished, and a deterioration in the pet’s relationship with its owner, as the owner becomes perceived as unpredictable and, possibly, a threat. Ultimately, whichever coping strategy works will be the one that provides relief, a powerful reinforcer and thus the one that is remembered.

The most primal affective-cognitive interaction in humans, and presumably other animals as well, is based on what is wanted and what is not wanted, tendencies which are reflected in approach and avoidance behaviours of various real-life phenomena (2).

But approach-avoidance behaviours are not only based on genetic programming. An animal’s responses to influences in its environment are governed by sensitivity to events and learned by their outcomes for future reference.

In clicker training, once the animal has learnt to associate the clicker with something positive (i.e. something that it wants or enjoys), it is already in a positive, anticipatory emotional state, and is prepared to work to get it. This motivation is essential and, without it, learning will not be possible (9). Indeed, learning improves when interest is aroused – if the animal is disinterested, any training exercise will be hopeless (10). Once basic obedience commands have been mastered though, an anxious or fearful animal has in its possession a reliable behavioural repertoire and, more importantly, a coping strategy to fall back on and restore emotional equilibrium when faced with a threatening situation. Similarly, with timely interception and practice, an overtly aggressive or attention-seeking animal can be distracted before it reaches a state of high arousal, and provided instead with an opportunity to perform an alternative, more desirable behaviour.
The value of such effects cannot be underestimated.

References

(1)    LeDoux, J: The Emotional Brain, Touchstone 1996
(2)    Panksepp, J: Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, Oxford University Press 2005
(3)    Lieberman, D: Learning: Behavior and Cognition, Wadsworth 2000
(4)    Lindsay, S: Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. 1 – Adaptation and Learning, Iowa State University Press 2000
(5)    Pryor, K: Don’t Shoot the Dog, Bantam 1999
(6)    Gray, J: The Psychology of Fear and Stress, McGraw Hill 1971
(7)    Panksepp, J: Affective Consciousness: Core Emotional Feelings in Animals and Humans, Science Direct 2004
(8)    O’Heare, J: Canine Neuropsychology, DogPsych 2003
(9)    Donaldson, J: The Culture Clash, James & Kenneth 1996
(10) Fogle, B: The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior, Howell Book House 1990   

Copyright © Susan Nilson 2005

Canine Body Language

Although humans and dogs share some similarities in using body language and facial expression, briefly describe three communication signals which are significantly different between the two species. Comment on the implications for misinterpretation that these might cause between people and their pets.

Eye Contact


According to Roger Abrantes, staring is the most common demonstration of dominance in canids. Avoiding the stare of an adversary, he says, is the most common pacifying gesture (1).

While the concept of ‘dominance’ in dogs remains open to much debate, staring is certainly a sign of a confident animal and it is often used to communicate hostility. When a dog stares intensely at another it shows deep concentration, its body is stiff and the eyes are wide open. Conversely, during appeasement displays or when a dog feels insecure, the eyes become smaller and more elongated (1). If a more confident dog is staring at a less confident dog, the less confident individual will interpret the stare as a threat and in all probability look away to indicate that he/she is not a threat and that no further action need be taken. If the stare continues, further submissive gestures may be seen or the dog may resort to one of the four Fs (typical responses a dog makes when faced with a perceived threat or challenge) freeze, flight, flight, 'fiddle about') to diffuse the tension.

Humans on the other hand tend to stare at things that they regard as threatening, which conversely runs the risk of being interpreted by a dog as a threat. Humans also often stare at people/animal/objects they find appealing. So, when you take your dog to the park or the vet and he is suddenly the centre of attention with everyone staring at him and commenting on how lovely he is, this can also be hugely stressful and intimidating for the more nervous dog, increasing his fear, and potentially challenging or provocative to the more confident dog, running the risk of eliciting an attack.

It is important to be aware of this and use soft eye-contact when being around dogs, particularly those that are unfamiliar.

Smiling

At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, some dogs do smile in a way that seems almost human. The lips are drawn back but the teeth remain hidden (i.e. the weaponry is unexposed, unlike during an aggressive display) and the facial muscles soft (as opposed to stiff, again indicating aggression). Sometimes, the corners of the dog’s mouth may actually be drawn into an upward curve, just like a human smile.

The canine smile is often seen in certain breeds of dogs (notably Dalmatians and Golden Retrievers) and is used as an appeasement or pacifying gesture. According to Abrantes, it is a phenocopy, or a gesture that is not inherited but caused by external features. In other words it is a learned behaviour, but it remains unknown as to whether dogs learn it from humans, from their mother or from other dogs. In my personal experience, dogs often ‘smile’ when they are relaxed or contented, or simply when they are just being friendly.

In the language of canine communication, the human smile must be very confusing. When we smile, we pull our lips back to display an array of weaponry which could easily be misinterpreted by a dog as a threat or challenge. To make matters worse, we often look directly at the object of our smile, making the gesture look more like a snarl. In canine terms, a snarl is a display of aggression; a warning to stay away by demonstrating the dog’s weaponry but is designed to avoid further conflict.

Ear position

Dogs use their ears constantly to express various emotions, mood states or motivations. A confident dog will hold his ears upright (unless physical breed characteristics do not allow it). Upright ears may also indicate that a dog is alert, or is mounting a challenge or is to be regarded as a threat.

As the ears move progressively back, they may indicate friendliness or submission. As they become totally flattened it indicates abject fear. If they flicker between flattened and moving backwards, it is an indication that the dog is wavering between fear and submission, and can also be a pacifying or appeasing gesture.

While ear position often reflects the motivation of the dog, it must be taken in context with other facial expressions, body language and behaviour patterns in each individual situation. For example, a dog with erect ears but a soft face may simply be conveying alertness, whereas a dog with erect ears, stiff gait/posture, lips back and teeth showing may be conveying aggression.

It is also worth noting that dogs often move their ears up and down when greeting humans or other dogs, and most dogs will also move their ears in response to their owner’s voice. This should not usually be taken as a submissive or ‘dominant’ gesture, but simply that the dog is attentive (1).

Compare all this to humans, whose ears are permanently pinned back and do not move much at all. So for a species such as the dog, whose ears are so vital in terms of expressing emotion and/or motivation, this must make life very confusing indeed. Should the dog interpret the fact that a human’s ears are permanently pinned back to mean that the human is fearful or submissive? How can the dog tell if the human is being friendly? Intense socialisation with as humans as possible is of course imperative here, so that the dog learns not only that pinned back human ears do not indicate mood state or motivation, but also to read other signals/gestures/body language/behaviour patterns in conjunction with the ear position to obtain an overall picture.

See also Canine Body Language

Bibliography

1 – Abrantes, Roger: Dog Language, An Encyclopaedia of Canine Behaviour – Wakan Tanka 1997

Copyright © Susan Nilson 2007

Kitten 'Kindergartens' versus Puppy Classes

The benefits of running successful puppy socialisation classes are clear. With this model in mind, discuss the pros and cons for the kitten and the owner of attending kitten socialisation classes.

With owners expecting their dogs to cope with all sorts of unfamiliar stimuli on a daily basis, the valuable contribution of puppy classes towards shaping a well-behaved, balanced dog is becoming more and more widely accepted.

Cats though, often regarded as unsocial predators, have correspondingly fewer demands made of them. Kitten classes do exist, but are less popular than their puppy counterparts and remain a relative unknown amongst many of the cat-owning fraternity (based on a straw poll of about 30 UK and UAE-based cat owners).

Puppy classes: the aims

According to Erica Peachey, puppy classes have developed from an idea brought to the UK in the Eighties by Dr Ian Dunbar (1). Peachey says they should actively teach puppies:
  • good manners;
  • to cope and behave obediently in a variety of everyday situations;
  • to learn to interact with adults, children and other animals;
  • how to respond to their owners’ wishes;
while teaching the owners:
  • responsible dog ownership;
  • how to avoid potential behaviour problems such as aggression or anxiety;
  • how to overcome typical problems such as mouthing and house-training;
  • how to shape their puppy’s behaviour and confidence in all situations;
  • as well as increase the owner’s overall understanding of their puppy.
Socialisation and the sensitive period

In the case of domestic dogs “the socialisation window closes at between three and five months of age, depending on the breed and individual make-up, with easy habituation drying up at around four and a half months of age in the majority of cases” (2). After 16 weeks of age, a dog’s ability to develop or change its social skills is limited and at this age, a dog’s social personality is essentially “set for life” (3).

So this gives puppies 18 weeks, the maximum age experts recommend for attending puppy classes, to become socialised and habituated. Compare this to their feline counterparts, who have to progress from being blind and deaf at two weeks to having a good grasp of the fundamentals of hunting behaviour by six-eight weeks, to being a fully self-sustainable, solitary predator at around 14 weeks.

Crucially, in kittens, the ‘sensitive’ period for socialisation to humans (and other species for that matter) occurs between two-seven weeks of age. At this stage a kitten should still be with its mother, so the onus is on the breeder to handle the kittens and get them used to human contact, not the owner. A kitten “must experience as much as possible of domestic life during this period in order to be able to take everything in its stride” as an adult (4). Turner and Bateson found that the more handling a kitten has received, the ‘friendlier’ it will be towards humans, with most experimental treatments resulting in socialised kittens being based on 30-40 minutes of handling a day (5).

Kitten ‘kindies’: what are they?

According to Sarah Heath, much has been written about the importance of the socialisation period to the behavioural development of the dog, but far less importance has been given to the effect of early life on the behaviour of the domestic cat (6). As such, so-called kitten kindies are in fact a relatively new concept which, based on a cursory ‘google’ search, seem to be more prevalent in Australia than anywhere else.

They are nowhere near as common as puppy classes, which may be because cats are generally able to toilet train themselves, are (usually) not required to walk on leads or travel on long car journeys, do not necessarily need to socialise with other cats, dogs or people (unless they live with them), and are often able to amuse themselves by playing or hunting. Although a pet cat will seek out attention if and when it chooses, it is often the one to initiate the contact, to decide where it sleeps, when it goes out and so on, so does not require – or respond to - a structured activity schedule like a dog.

According to the Australian RSPCA, many kittens are abandoned each year because their owners cannot tolerate their behaviour (7). So kitten kindies have been developed as an early socialisation and training programme aiming to:
  • prevent behavioural problems by giving the kitten adequate stimulus to develop a ‘balanced’ personality;
  • to establish a strong bond between the kitten and its owner(s);
  • provide an education programme for owners regarding feline behaviour;
  • establish the importance of play as a prelude to predatory behaviour;
  • educate owners on nutrition, the importance of microchipping, and essential equipment such as feeding bowls and litter trays, vaccinations and general healthcare.
So, like puppy classes, an emphasis is placed on owner education, interaction and bonding between the owner and the pet, teaching the pet to cope in everyday situations and eliminating behaviour problems before they become established. The recommended age for a kitten to attend is 6-12 weeks, after the first vaccination, for a course of four classes over four weeks. If a kitten is still with its mother up until the age of eight weeks, then this leaves four weeks to attend the course, which is about right, according to the Australian RSPCA, which says that “at 7–8 weeks kittens have developed good eye-paw co-ordination, and social play develops between 6-12 weeks of age”. A good time then to attend kitten kindy and start
practising these skills.

Kitten classes: benefits for kittens and owners

According to Moelk (1979), most people who have bred cats appreciate that kittens often show individual differences in behaviour at an early age (5). So, if their personality and level of ‘friendliness’ has largely been formed by the age of about eight weeks, what use could a kitten class really be?

Firstly, learning opportunities missed early on in life can sometimes be made up later, although normally this takes longer (8). By the same token, if a kitten had been handled by no one, or just one person up to the age of six weeks, early attendance at a kitten class might help it generalise this friendliness to other humans, as well as other kittens. And the kitten with no siblings might pick up valuable pointers from other kittens (how hard to bite, when to retract the claws during play etc.) by mimicking their behaviour.

Perhaps more pertinent is the opportunity kitten classes present for kittens to play as an outlet for their predatory behaviour, making them less likely to experiment on humans. Like puppies, they are desperate to learn and curious to investigate new things, and it does not take much effort on the part of the owner to motivate them. But a ‘classroom’ environment would not be necessary for this.

More relevant still might be the kitten’s getting used to a cat carrier and going in the car so it would learn to associate such events with a pleasurable experience, rather than with the annual trip to the vet. Not to mention the invaluable introduction to new experiences, people, cats and smells, all which can be explored in a safe environment, thereby building confidence.

From the human perspective, kitten classes provide the perfect opportunity for education on behaviour; how to handle undesired behaviour if it occurs, and the importance of reinforcement over punishment; how to handle the pet/teach children to handle the pet/introduce a new cat, dog or baby; and how to train a cat to come when its name is called (also a safety issue), to walk on a lead or use a cat flap.

As such, if and when problems such as furniture scratching or spraying do occur, the owner will know that they are natural behaviours and have an idea of how to handle them, rather than adhere to the popular myth that the cat is doing it out of spite or for revenge.

Classes can also play a valuable role in educating owners how to behave around the cat, to try to understand how the cat is feeling, and to read its body language (e.g. a wagging tail signals an irritated cat and a possible imminent attack).

An important psychological point is the fact that an owner will have the chance to show off their kitten and have its behaviour and/or personality admired by others. This is significant in terms of strengthening the bond between the owner and the kitten, and the ‘feel good’ factor should never be underestimated. In tandem with this, as in a puppy class, owners can also compare notes and discuss problems and idiosyncrasies, creating a bond with both the trainer and other owners.

Kitten classes: the limitations

Although cats often leave peaceably in multi-cat households or feral colonies, they do not really need to interact with other cats, dogs, humans or animals to survive. Even if they are sharing a home, they may not necessarily form a close attachment to certain members of the household. So the benefits of introducing kittens to other kittens at a kitten class may be negligible, especially as these introductions would be made at the tail end of the socialisation period, and after the sensitive period.

Also, given the cat’s territorial nature, the value of a lesson in being around other animals might be limited, but a class could certainly educate owners on lessening the likelihood of territorial aggression occurring (e.g. having the cat neutered/spayed or not letting it out at night). Even if cats do not fight, they will not necessarily get along and will often work out their own social arrangements which a human has little influence on – and is possibly totally unaware of.

Whenever I have introduced kittens to one another, they have been wary and not approached each other immediately. In such cases, 45 minutes’ exposure at a kitten class would not be beneficial. All the kittens in question became good playmates eventually, but this would not have been achievable in the timeframe of a kitten class. Even if it did happen quickly, it is possible the kitten would forget by the following week – unless it is friendly and outgoing by nature, in which case it will approach other kittens/cats/humans in any case and classes would not be necessary.

In any case, how does one control a group of kittens? Is it even necessary to control them if they are running around chasing each other and having fun? It would be important in a kitten class to take into account the individual personality of the kittens. Some are naturally friendly, others more reserved. So the question would be whether classes could address this so that each individual animal would be able to benefit.

Exposing a timid kitten to unfamiliar kittens and humans may make it even more timid in their presence. The same situation could encourage a kitten with a tendency towards aggression to bully some of the others. And, as in a puppy class, if the kitten or the owner gets stressed, learning ability becomes severely hampered. But if undesirable behaviours can be pinpointed and corrected at this stage, then the kitten class is performing a valuable function.

Cats do not generally need to get used to as many stimuli as dogs. They simply run away from or avoid people or situations they perceive as threatening or uninteresting, so the need to get them accustomed to a variety of situations is largely a moot point. Certainly cats do not need to learn to walk in the park or down the street on a lead (usually), or to interact with unfamiliar people or animals, so the need for training in a kitten class is limited. But classes can at least make the owner aware of how to effectively train a particular desired behaviour, such as using the cat flap, if required.

Another point to note is that kittens have sharp claws and teeth, and can be hard to control if they get stressed or scared. If they get very frightened, they might become fearful of humans/other kittens/strange environments/noises/smells, a situation that could take time to overcome. It would also be necessary to consider the possibility of the spread of disease. To be on the safe side, each kitten would probably need its own litter tray. Biting and scratching, should they occur, could also spread disease.

Finally, according to Karen Pryor, a cat gets tired after about five minutes of training, which may also impact on the benefit of attending a kitten class (9). Cats do not have the same social restrictions as dogs and do not have to be ‘obedient’ in everyday situations. Granted, they have to learn not to jump on the kitchen counter or climb up the curtains, but they are not expected to respond to commands such as ‘sit’, ‘fetch’, ‘stay’ etc., like a dog is. So training is largely another moot point, unless the owner is doing it for entertainment purposes, such as Pryor teaching a cat to play the piano using chunks of ham as a primary reinforcer.

Conclusion

Given the fact that kittens by their very nature are curious creatures, kittens would probably not learn much in a kitten class that they would not learn anyway, by themselves or at home with their owners. Although they could certainly have a lot of fun in a kitten class, it would be essential that they were comfortable with the situation and not experiencing stress or fear, and this might be difficult for both the owner and the trainer to ascertain correctly.

It is likely that such classes are actually more beneficial for the owners in terms of educating them on all aspects of cat care and behaviour. In this respect, their function is exactly the same as a puppy class. The by-product is then that the kitten benefits greatly from the owner’s greater understanding of its behaviour. So while playing with a piece of string in a room full of other kittens may have its limitations in terms of rounded kitten development, the more far-reaching implications are the building of the kitten-owner bond, and the acquisition of knowledge on the part of the owner to ensure the kitten is correctly cared for and better understood as it enters adulthood.

The very fact that kitten kindies are so named (as opposed to puppy classes) indicates that they are designed more for the kittens to have fun than to actually teach them anything. Perhaps the more important goal is to teach their owners how to look after them. If so, they are well worth the time and investment.

Bibliography

(1) Erica Peachey: in The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour, Souvenir Press 2004
(2) Jean Donaldson: The Culture Clash – James & Kenneth 1996
(3) Raymond & Lorna Coppinger: Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution – Crosskeys Select 2004
(4) Peter Neville & Claire Bessant: The Perfect Kitten – Octopus 1997
(5) Dennis Turner & Patrick Bateson: The Domestic Cat – The Biology of its Behaviour – Cambridge University Press, 2000
(6) Sarah Heath: Why Does My Cat? – Souvenir Press, 1993
(7) Australian RSPCA – www.rspca.org.au
(8) Peter Neville: Think Cat – COAPE
(9) Karen Pryor: Don’t Shoot the Dog – Bantam, 1999

Copyright © Susan Nilson 2004

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