Felines, like us humans, tend to respond better to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement techniques. After all, who would prefer getting punished rather than getting praised? Rewarding your cat with a delicious treat is definitely a positive reinforcement method, which might explain why they learn so quickly when food is involved. The question is, why is giving your cat a treat such an important act?
Punishment is Undesirable
Any form of punishment, be it physical, verbal, or mental, is detrimental when it comes to training your cat. Sure, your cat may stop doing something you disapprove of the moment it associates its behavior with an unpleasant consequence, but the punishment can lead to your cat developing distrust towards you.
Using physical punishment may lead your cat to resort to biting and/or scratching in order to defend itself, thus further generating unwanted behavior – which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. In addition, felines may be quite general, when it comes to associating punishment with surrounding stimuli: for example, if you punish your cat when your child is nearby, your cat may associate your child with the punishment (even if s/he did nothing!) and can become aggressive towards your child in the future.
If you have to resort to punishment, try to make it seem as though it isn’t coming directly from you. Spraying water while you’re out of sight or altering the environment will lead to your cat perceiving the object/its surroundings as the enforcer of the punishment instead of you.
Cats Have Strong Senses
Unlike canines, cats respond better to sense stimuli rather than verbal praise. The thing about food rewards is that cats are able to pursue them by themselves (e.g. When a food reward is tossed onto the floor and the feline chases after it). This action also helps them work on their natural hunting skills. As such, the ability to use their senses serves as an extra incentive, and when used right, treats will definitely help encourage good behavior. Cats will learn to associate treats with the wanted/approved behavior as they are seeking for the food rewards that they think will follow.
Due to the fact that this association is so strong, however, be careful to not give treats out freely. Use treats only for when you want to train your cat’s behavior – if you give your cat a treat for every single thing it does, it will simply associate you with treats and will probably never leave you alone. When your cat has learned a behavior well enough for it to execute said behavior without food rewards, it is best to slowly stop giving it treats. As training progresses, try to keep food rewards following only difficult commands instead of just about anything. As your cat matures, slowly wean it off its reliance on food rewards – keep the general positive reinforcement to verbal and physical praise. This is not to say, however, that you should never reward your cat with a treat every now and then!