What is at the heart of every inquiry I get at cat school? Communication.
"Why is my cat biting us?"
"Why is my cat screaming all the time?"
"I can't figure out what my cat wants! I want to understand what they need!"
Even though we're living in the 21st century, we still don't have the technology to translate an animal's thoughts (or meows!) into our spoken word, although many dream of it!
To bridge this radio silence between our pets, the use of a soundboard has become popular.
What is a soundboard? A soundboard is a series of buttons that a pet can press to communicate what they want or how they're feeling. The idea was made popular by Christina Hunger and her dog Stella. You can teach a pet to indicate their desire by selecting the button that says the word out loud, such as having a button that says "food" or "outside". They've even added more advanced concepts like "want" and emotions like "mad".
Understandably people are excited about this tool because deep down, we all want to have the best communication with our pet that we possibly can. We all want to meet their needs and help them live fulfilled lives.
While the goal here at Cat School is precisely that, soundboard technology isn't going to be a method I dive into yet.
Communication between cats and humans already exists, and I don't think I need to teach cats English to understand them better. Want to get better at understanding your cat? I recommend you learn your cat's language instead. Many dog training courses recommend hundreds of hours observing dog body language to understand their communication, why should it be any different for cats? Their ears, eyes, tail, meows, all give us clues to their emotional state. Once you become more adept at feline signals, you can better understand the cat-human conversation.
Observing cats interact in a multicat household is an excellent way to learn cat talk. Cats use sophisticated signals to share space and resources. Don't have your own kitty pack? Watch my cat, Jones meet neighbourhood cats in our Instagram #catsocialtv posts. Through slow interactions and loads of communication, Jones manages to befriend even the most feisty felines. It's like a soap opera starring cats proving that felines don't need words to say how they feel.
Have you ever wondered how dogs and cats communicate? Like the human-cat relationship, cats and dogs are different species who can learn each other's language. I've observed Jones interacting with dogs, inviting play and setting boundaries with a swipe or hiss. Jones also has several canine wrestling buddies. Consider the sophisticated non-verbal communication that happens for these two species with sharp teeth and claws to communicate a playful intent.
If you want to understand how your cat "feels" about any experiences, whether it's being picked up or meeting a new human or animal, learn to speak cat.
Your cat walks over and bites or scratches your leg because they want attention. Wouldn't it be nice if instead, they could say, "I'm bored"? Enter clicker training! Clicker training is a tool you already have at your fingertips to teach your cat how to ask for what they want. For example, if you teach your cat to ring a bell to get treats, they will ring for their feline butler when it's time for a snack. This training is similar to teaching a dog to ring a bell when they want to go outside. After working on many jumping tricks with Jones, he will jump over my laptop when he wants attention while I'm working. Not subtle, but I don't need to teach him English to know he needs some activity. The more behaviours your cat learns, the bigger their repertoire to draw from when they want to "talk" to you.
For any trainer who wants to be on the cutting edge of animal science, there are many advanced training concepts to learn. For example, Gentoo Penguins at Ski Dubai were taught to discriminate between colours and shapes. The team behind the Do As I Do training demonstrated that dogs could learn new behaviours by imitating their owner. While these challenges push the barriers of what and how animals can learn and are fascinating studies of animal intelligence, they are not always easy for the average time-crunched pet owner to adopt. Cats are excellent learners, and I don't doubt that they can learn complicated concepts, but will these methods give my students the results they need?
In busy households, cat owners want fast and easy solutions to solve their cat's problem behaviours. I get dozens of messages each day asking for "quick tips" to solve this or that. Many of these messages are followed by, "or else I will have to give up my cat." While Jones and I may geek out on advanced training and I'm happy to share what we do, my goal is to recommend methods that improve the cat-human relationship fast. With behaviour issues being a common reason that cats end up in shelters, quick results, not fancy training, is my top priority.
Rico is a Border Collie that knew over 200 words. However, the research was inconclusive if Rico understood objects the way a child would. Dr. Patricia McConnell has a fantastic article about animals that talk and the rigorous testing to ensure the animal knows that the word they are using is the word we think they're using. There are many questions that this soundboard prompts: What do we define as language? What does a word mean to an animal versus what it means to us? There's a difference between words for objects, i.e., labels, and learning the concept behind the term, which this article covers in depth. When we think we may be teaching a concept, are we, or are we teaching a label? The science isn't there yet to say dogs (or cats) can learn a language in the way we do. While waiting for science to show us might seem like a drag (yawn), teaching methods that aren't scientifically tested may only serve to frustrate cats and the humans teaching them.
When people train their pets, they almost always do a combination of verbal and hand signals. But which one works better for training our pets? A study comparing dogs' responses to verbal cues versus hand signals, found that gestural cues, i.e., body language is a more powerful communication channel (D'Aniello, et al, 2016).
If we know that our pets learn better from watching our signals, does it make sense to teach them language? When it comes to teaching cats, ease of learning is a top concern. As a verbal species, we love using our voice to communicate with our cats, but if we want to respect a cat's learning style, our words might not be welcome.
But don't you want to be at the forefront of this training?
While I appreciate all the messages from students encouraging me to get involved, I will not be trading my clicker for a soundboard. Clicker training is science-based, fun, easy to learn and results-oriented. While soundboard training might look cool, I'm going to stay silent and keep clicking.
Learn how to communicate with your cat using clicker training.
D’Aniello, B., Scandurra, A., Alterisio, A., Valsecchi, P., & Prato-Previde, E. (2016). The importance of gestural communication: A study of human–dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition, 19(6), 1231-1235. doi:10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5