Training Cats and the Incompatible Behavior

By Terry Golson

I grew up with cats but the first year that I went away to college I developed an inexplicable and permanent allergy to them, which is why my children have had many animals in their lives, but never felines. My son, Daniel, always said that as soon as he could, he’d have cats. He recently moved into his first solo apartment in a pet-friendly building in a large midwestern city. It was time.

Daniel grew up with genius working dogs. I was clicker training when he was just a baby, and even the not-so-brilliant animals, like the chickens, showed off their personalities through their interactions with us.  So, it was no surprise that Daniel wanted at least one bright and talkative cat; it’d be okay if the other cat was mellow.  Last month I flew out to help him select two cats from the municipal city shelter.

The beautiful grey with the massive green eyes still had a feral look about her – she’d recently been brought in from the streets – but she immediately liked being held and we could see her potential. This would be the mellow cat.



The mewing calico, reaching her paw out of the cage towards us, was an obvious choice for the interactive cat. Perhaps too obvious. This was one demanding and intense cat. I told Daniel that she’d be trouble. He said she was perfect. I get to tell him I told you so for years to come.

cat in box


Abbi and Ilana didn’t know each other at the shelter, but they quickly became friends.

cats side by side


Sort of. Ilana, the calico, is in everyone’s face, even Abbi’s. Abbi tolerates it, to a point.

cat licks


Abbi knows how to insist on having her own space.

city cats


Although Daniel knows how to train animals, it’s not his thing. Like many (most?) pet owners, he simply wants to enjoy their company.

Enjoyment, however, can be hampered when your pet misbehaves. Misbehave, of course, in the eyes of the owner. As far as the cats are concerned, their behavior is perfect. Every night around 4 am Ilana and Abbi zoomed around the apartment, chasing each other, tumbling, and play fighting. All fun for them, but not for Daniel. However, an issue like this don’t always require formal training, nor punitive action like locking the cats up. Sometimes a simple change of schedule solves the problem. I suggested to Daniel that he give the girls a set playtime at 11 pm to tire them out. It’s worked. They no longer wake Daniel up in the wee hours of the morning.

Dinner table manners required another strategy. This time I used a favorite from my training bag of tricks – the incompatible behavior. This is when a desired behavior is trained as an alternative to the undesired one. The animal can’t do both at the same time, and so gives up the unwanted behavior. Daniel takes his meals at a small table near the window. Abbi left Daniel alone while he ate. Ilana did not. She strolled across the table, got in Daniel’s face, stepped on his food and meowed loudly. This was unsanitary and annoying. Tossing the cat on the floor just made her think: game on! and in a flash she’d be back up on the table.

In a situation like this most people think in terms of what they don’t want – I want that darn cat off of the table. That sort of thinking doesn’t work because it’s your will against the cat’s desire of I want to be on the table. The cat always wins! Instead, think about what you do want. Daniel wanted Ilana on the floor. We could have done some formal training and taught her to go on a mat (yes, cats are quite trainable!) but it was easier to simply give her a playtime alternative to being on the table.

I had Daniel purchase a few ping pong balls. These are the best cat toys. When pounced on they shoot out in unexpected directions and bounce off of walls. While Daniel eats, Ilana gets to chase the balls. Ilana can’t sit on Daniel’s dinner plate at the same time that she’s playing on the floor. When dinner is done, the ping pong balls are put away. After a few sessions of this, Daniel’s dinner became the cue that the balls would be available. Ilana now knows that the fun is on the floor, not traipsing across Daniel’s dinner plate. Problem solved.

(This photo doesn’t illustrate the story, but it was too gorgeous not to include.)



Daniel also makes sure that the cats have food when he does. If they’re eating their own dinner, they can’t be eating his (incompatible behavior!) When he adopted the cats, we went on a buying spree. Indoor cats can be perfectly happy, but it helps for them to have an interesting environment. This food tree makes meal time a challenge. It helps to keep the kitties (especially Ilana!) busy and sane.


Just as an aside – many people resort to spritzing cats with water to keep them off of furniture. It’s not a good idea. Cats know that your hand is attached to that spritzer, and that you’re attached to the hand. Over time your cat might become aggressive and scratch you, or to avoid not only the table, but you as well. Besides, that sort of punishment isn’t particularly effective. You’ll have to do it again and again. What is likely is that you’ll have a ticked off, tail-swishing, angry cat. But if instead you give your cat an incompatible behavior, something in fact rewarding for them to do, then you’ll have an engaged and happy cat.

Thinking about what I want rather than what I don’t is my first step when training. Often what I want is an incompatible behavior to the one that’s causing the problems. It doesn’t matter the species of animal or the task, figuring out an incompatible behavior almost always leads to a good outcome. Most of the time we decide to do some training because there’s something we want to fix, whether for example, it’s an exuberant dog jumping on guests or a horse barging through a gate. If you think only in terms of “don’t do that” then your answer will be a form of punishment to try to stop the behavior. (Yank on the leash or  snap a chain on a nose.) But if you think about what you’d rather see – a dog sitting at the door, or a horse waiting politely on a loose lead rope, then you can train for that, all in a positive, rewarding and effective way.

Some animals, like Abbi, are so easy to get along with that you rarely have to rely on incompatible behaviors. Others, though, keep you on your toes. I knew within five minutes of meeting Ilana that she was one of those. She’s not bad. She’s creative. Daniel and I wouldn’t want her any other way.


i cat

14 thoughts on “Training Cats and the Incompatible Behavior

  • Christine O.

    Such a timely post…thank you! My husband was chasing the cats out of the bedroom at the crack of dawn when they started to play. The result is that the husband is angry, the cats are scared, I’m frustrated and nobody can go back to sleep. I’m going to find some ping pong balls for evening playtime. That cat food tree is ingenious!

    Will it work on a crowing hen? Henny Penny is the last left of the original flock since Amelia passed in November and Scarlett 2 weeks ago. This weekend, we started integrating the Littles in the run so that she has a flock. But for the past week, she has been crowing early every morning. I think she is still lonely.

      • Christine O.

        The cats have settled down and the husband is much happier. We realized that raccoons were coming in at night to eat the cat food so a combination of more playtime before bed and locking the cat door seems to be working well. Also, last night was the first night that Henny Penny roosted with the Littles and this morning was the first in almost 2 weeks that she didn’t crow. Maybe it was territorial and now she is getting more accepting of them.

  • Tracy

    Oh, I also love cats. Love them. But like you, I am acutely allergic to them. So much so that I now have chronic asthma from owning two, despite my allergies. Years ago I adopted two –a massively friendly and appealing one, and a much more reserved (some might say grumpy) one, loved them both, but quickly learned how significant my allergy became. Once I adopt or purchase a pet, it stays with me forever; I can’t even bring myself to rehome an animal in my care. So, many years, red weepy eyes, wheezing and inhalers later, I finally lost my last cat to old age. I miss having them. So different in makeup and behavior than dogs, birds or horses, cats are just fascinating. Your son’s two are stunningly beautiful and despite their differences they seem compatible, which is such a bonus. I love that he adopted two as I believe most animals are much happier when they have others of their species close by.

    Sigh….I will have to get my cat “fix” from barn cats and a few feral cats in my neighborhood I’ve trapped and spayed or neutered. …And don’t ask about that heated and well padded small igloo hidden under my front porch in winter months and the clean food and water bowls hidden behind a hydrangea for the ferals. I tell myself It’s a very handy way to ensure they’re wormed each year and given antibiotics if I observe any small wounds on them, but really I just like to know they’re warm and fed, even on the coldest nights.

    If folks would apply your ideas about training for the replacement behaviors you want, so many cats could be saved from ending up in shelters and euthanasia. Terry, I hope you will consider starting a YouTube Channel with short training videos. Break it down to very incremental goals and make them 10 to 15 minutes long. There are a few very simple (but not obvious) ways to making these build viewership. I’ll tell you what, I’ll write all your video titles and will increase the clicks on them threefold just by using a few digital Marketing tricks I know. One series for cat and dog owners, and another for horse owners and riders. Love Your Dog: How to happily housebreak your new puppy in two short weeks, Love Your Dog: How to happily teach your dog to walk on a leash, Love Your Horse: How to teach your horse to be your best friend, Love Your Horse: How to happily teach your horse to stand still for tacking up…well, you get the idea. Revenue from the videos and advertisers, then the books…then the speaking tours….

    Change the world. Go on. I dare you. I’ll help. 🙂

    • Terry Golson Post author

      My parents had a heated, padded igloo in the garage for our white cat that lived outdoors. My Dad reached in to pet her one day and heard a nasty noise – a white opossum had taken up residence!

  • Jan;

    Up until 10 years ago we always had Labrador’s which were so friendly, when our last one passed we decided at our age a dog would be to boisterous. We then got our first cat a beautiful ginger and white called Scruffy because he was the runt of the litter and looked terrible for about 3 months. Very sadly he had a large inoperable tumour when he was 5 years old and we had to have him put down. We went to the local rescue and a mother had been brought in with her kittens, we choice two a grey, black and white boy and a Calico or Tortoiseshell as we call them female, her markings are adorable she has one front leg which is ginger/white stripes and the other is grey/white stripes. They adore each other, Timmy has grown into a very big boy and is very protective of his sister Missy ( names chosen by the grandkids ).
    Although we miss the dogs, cats are wonderful company and a lot easier to look after..:)

  • Michelle

    I loved all of this – the training of Ilana, that Daniel sought your help in choosing and shopping for his cats, and the beautiful photos. Hope you didn’t have too bad an allergic reaction!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      New apartment with wood floors. I was fine, and could even hold the cats without my eyes puffing up. But next time I visit, I’ll stay in a hotel.

Comments are closed.