As a cat behaviourist, the vast majority of the behaviours I deal with fall into the following categories:
The first two categories are self-explanatory. The last one is a catch-all for those behaviours that are largely annoying, and have most probably been inadvertently conditioned by the guardian (or previous guardian). The focus of our article today is on this category.
So, what are some example behaviours that fit here? These are the annoying night-time behaviours, excessive vocalisation (caused by reinforcement by the guardian), play aggression (fits in two categories), knocking things off shelves etc. All of these behaviours are intended to get a response from the guardian, whether it be attention, food, outside time etc.
If you’ve read any of my articles that mention the science of behaviour, you’ll know that behaviour occurs because of a history of that behaviour being reinforced (rewarded) in some way, whether that be internal or external. Put another way, If the pestering behaviour was never reinforced, it wouldn’t occur.
Whilst there are multiple ways we can deal with these attention-seeking/pestering behaviours, in most cases, the most practical way is dealing with the ‘Motivating Operation’ (i.e. what is driving the behaviour, usually hunger or lack of attention), and the ‘Consequence’ (what is rewarding the behaviour, usually food or attention).
In almost all cases, the formula for successfully dealing with the behaviour is simply addressing the Motivating Operation (e.g. more play, environment enrichment, providing more attention/food at more appropriate times i.e. not when pestering), and managing the Consequence (what happens after the behaviour).
Let’s dig in a little further. I don’t want to get too science-y here so I’ll keep It light.
There are three types of consequence:
Reinforcement and punishment are self-explanatory and easy to imagine (something good or something bad).
Extinction, on the other hand, is simply ensuring that the behaviour is not rewarded or punished in any way. That is, nothing happens after the behaviour. Because remember, a behaviour that is rewarded is a behaviour that will continue. A behaviour that results in… NOTHING… is a behaviour that will eventually stop!
That is honestly the ‘master plan’ when it comes to dealing with attention-seeking/pestering behaviours. There’s no magic. It’s simply:
Step 1: Ignore the behaviour when it happens (managing the Consequence); and
Step 2: Provide other opportunities for the reward, at more appropriate times or situations (managing the Motivating Operation).
Let’s put this in context.
Imagine, for the past several months, your beautiful ball of fluff has, without fail, woken you up at 4am each morning by nudging your face and pawing on your chest. Despite your attempts to pacify her, this ‘morning dance’ almost always results in you getting up to feed her so you can get back to bed for another hour or two’s sleep.
Most people understand that their behaviour (feeding her) is rewarding their cat, but attempts to ignore her usually end up in a more lengthy and determined effort to wake you! Finally you give in because… it’s just easier.
Then, after a while, the morning dance starts to move from 4am, to (gasp) 3:50am. Your fur-baby is certainly pushing the boundaries. Gradually it gets earlier and earlier.
Finally, at the end of your tether (after months of interrupted sleep), you reach out to a behaviourist who, in all their wisdom, simply says ‘you need to ignore her’.
You feel like screaming, “I’ve tried it! I’ve tried everything!!!”.
This is a relatively common situation, and when the ‘solution’ fails, it’s usually ALWAYS due to one thing – a lack of consistency.
When it comes to Extinction (in this case, ignoring the behaviour), consistency is everything.
And rather than just tell you that ‘consistency is everything’, and to ‘be more consistent’, I’m going to explore why it’s so important. The ‘why’ provides context and increases the motivation to be consistent.
It all comes down to reinforcement schedules. Sorry for the science-y terminology again, but I’ll explain it in less scientific terms.
A reinforcement schedule simply means/determines how often a behaviour is reinforced. The concept is used heavily by animal trainers.
To explain, let’s use an example of training a dog to sit.
When beginning to train the sit behaviour, the behaviour must be highly rewarding/reinforcing. This is achieved by using what’s called a ‘continuous reinforcement schedule’. This simply means that the behaviour is rewarded (e.g. with a treat) each and every time.
The problem with a continuous reinforcement schedule, is that the behaviour is quite ‘weak’. That is, it’s highly dependent on getting a treat. Once the treats stop coming, the behaviour stops.
To combat this, once the behaviour can be consistently achieved using continuous reinforcement, trainers must start to ‘thin’ the reinforcement schedule.
This is what’s known as an ‘intermittent reinforcement schedule’. It simply means that the trainer starts to reward the behaviour, not every time, but enough to keep the dog interested.
Still with me? Good. The science is almost over.
There are two types of intermittent reinforcement schedules: fixed ratio and variable ratio.
The fixed ratio schedule just means you are providing treats on a fixed schedule e.g. every 3rd time the dog sits. This strengthens the behaviour so that it is less dependent on getting rewarded every time.
The variable ratio schedule, on the other hand, means that the reward comes randomly e.g. on the 3rd time, then the 2nd time after that, then the 6th time after that etc.
The variable ratio schedule is where trainers aim to get to, because it creates a behaviour that is effectively embedded, and is highly resistant to extinction (stopping the treats). Basically, the dog knows that if he keeps going, eventually he’ll get a treat.
It’s exactly why poker machines are so addictive. Each press of the button may or may not result in a win (reward). And because it’s so variable, it becomes more tempting (e.g. ‘THIS time I’m going to win).
You can probably see how effective this is for training appropriate behaviours, but conversely, how damaging it can be if we are inadvertently conditioning those attention-seeking/pestering behaviours.
Back to the early morning wake-ups!
I cite a ‘lack of consistency’ in ignoring the cat when explaining why many guardians fail at extinguishing those early morning wake-ups.
Looking at it another way, which should scare the pants off you:
A lack of consistency = a variable reinforcement schedule!
Being good ‘most of the time’ = reinforcing the behaviour ‘some of the time’!
This results in a behaviour that is more resistant to extinction!
Explaining this to clients straight up usually results in replies of ‘aaaah, so that’s why it wont’ stop – we ignore her 95% of the time!’, and a much higher compliance, and therefore, success rate!
So next time you’re dealing with a persistent, annoying, attention-seeking behaviour, try to determine whether you’re being 100% consistent or only 80% consistent. At 80% consistent, you may actually be making the behaviour worse (and more resistant to extinction)!
And fear not, in most circumstances, IF you are successfully stopping it from being reinforced (extinction) the behaviour (whatever it is) should stop or substantially improve in around 2-3 weeks. If after 3 weeks the behaviour is still as bad as ever, start to look at other ways it’s being reinforced (or other family members who may be reinforcing!).