If you’ve ever been to Key West’s Mallory Square at sunset, you’ve probably seen Dominique LeFort’s trained cats jumping through hoops of fire. Sure, that’s showy, but you can in fact teach your cat more useful tricks that don’t run the risk of burning the house down.
Wait just a minute, you may be thinking to yourself. You’ve always been told that it’s impossible to train cats – and especially not to perform tricks. If that’s what you’re thinking, consider yourself to be in the majority. However, with the right motivation, cats are actually highly trainable. Training isn’t just a way to get your cat to do something that you want. It has a number of benefits for you and your cat.
Experts believe that most cats enjoy the mental stimulation of training. It adds another dimension of interaction between the cat and the owner, and can serve to enhance communication and the human-animal bond.
Training is also a great way to provide your cat with a mental and physical workout, keeping both his brain and his body agile. Kittens learn fastest, but even an adult cat can pick up new behaviors. Training a cat requires nothing more than a clicker, some tiny, tasty treats, a good sense of timing — and patience.
Cats can learn many things
What can you teach a cat? Cats can learn any number of behaviors traditionally attributed to dogs, including roll over, shake, wave, jump through a hoop and fetch, but you can also teach behaviors with a purpose: sit, come and walk on a leash. With these commands in his repertoire you’ll have a cat that’s easy to find in the event of an emergency, who sits politely instead of jumping into allergic Aunt Martha’s lap, and who can go anywhere with you.
Training your cat to sit
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior in Davis, California, likes to start by having people teach their cats to sit — especially if they’re having problems with their cat chasing them and attacking their legs. When you teach your cat to sit for attention, petting or treats, it becomes a game and helps to distract him from raking his claws across your legs, she says. It’s a good command to use to prevent him from jumping up on someone who doesn’t welcome his attentions — and it’s also the basis for teaching stay, standing up on the hind legs, and waving a paw.
To teach your cat to sit, hold a treat just above his head. As his nose goes up to sniff it, his rear automatically goes down, right into a sit position. The instant he’s in a sit, click and give him the treat. You should also click and treat any time you see your cat sitting, whether you’ve asked him to or not. As you do so, give a name to the action — “Sit” — and praise him for it — “Good sit!”
Once he’s learned to sit, your cat has a replacement behavior for things he might do that annoy you. For instance, if your cat likes to jump on your desk while you’re working, reward him for sitting at your feet.
“When he’s sitting there quietly, you can then give him what he wants — which is petting or treats,” explains Dr. Yin. “You want to give those rewards at frequent intervals, so the cat continues to sit instead of going on to perform the behavior you don’t want, like jumping up on your desk while you’re working.”
Teach your cat to come
Teaching your cat to come is easy. At every mealtime, as you set down your cat’s food, whistle a particular tune, ring a bell, jingle your keys or make some other noise that’s easy to reproduce. (Helpful hint: Don’t use a clicker; your cat should only associate the clicking sound with the promise of a reward for a particular action.)
Your cat will quickly learn to associate that sound with mealtime and will respond instantly to it.
“Come” is a command that could ultimately save your cat’s life in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or natural disaster that requires evacuation. Cats will often hide when you need to find them most, but cats who know this command have one more advantage in hopefully not being left behind if you must suddenly evacuate your home. Always praise and reward your cat for coming, and avoid using the “come” command for anything unpleasant.
Walking on a leash
For extroverted indoor cats, this is the key to an exciting new world. A cat who is willing and able to walk on a leash can go places with you, safely explore outdoors (although actual walks tend to be short and aimless) and just enjoy rolling around in the grass. Unless you’re starting with a malleable kitten, leash training can take time, but the rewards are well worth it.
You’ll need a figure-eight style harness and a lightweight leash. Start by accustoming your cat to wearing the harness. Put it on him and let him get used to wearing it for a few minutes at a time, a couple of times a day. The process should be gradual and involve petting and favorite treats. Be certain that your cat cannot easily escape the harness. This is something to confirm while training inside — certainly not outside!
Some cats will immediately fall over as if paralyzed, while others will howl at the strange new item of apparel. Pet him if he’s just lying there, and reward any movement while he’s wearing the harness with a click and treat. Be patient during this training period. Some cats may take to the harness quickly, while others may take weeks. Don’t move ahead until your cat wears the harness comfortably and without complaint.
Next, attach the leash. As with the harness, it will take time for your cat to adjust. He may go through the paralysis or howling stages again. Leave the leash on for only a few minutes at a time, and again reward any movement while the cat is wearing the leash. Encourage him to come to you by offering a treat.
Once your cat has accepted the harness and leash, practice walking indoors. Let your cat lead the way. It’s next to impossible to direct a cat, even one on leash, so this is something you should accept ahead of time. Any time your cat moves forward, click and give him a treat.
When your cat is comfortable walking on leash inside, take your practice sessions outdoors. Start in a fenced yard so that you’re in a controlled environment. If he’s never been outside before, your cat may be intrigued, confused or made anxious by his new surroundings. Let him explore at his own pace, and reward movement or play with praise and a treat.
Stay in quiet areas
If you venture outside the yard, It’s very important to avoid busy streets or big dogs that might scare your cat. Spend outdoor time in quiet neighborhoods, on easy nature trails or at a caf where the two of you can sit and watch the passing scene. You can also use a harness and leash to teach your cat not to rush out the door until you signal that it’s okay.
Other useful behaviors
“I also like to do touch target training with cats, Dr. Yin says. “The target for a cat is usually something like a pencil with a big eraser on the end. I start by putting a little bit of food on the end and presenting it just far enough from the cat so it has to stretch its neck to examine the food. Then when it touches it, I remove it and give a reward immediately, so they learn that touching it with the nose gets a reward. What I want, and what you can usually get within several days, is for the cat to run several feet to touch the target with its nose. Once you have that, you can train all kinds of tricks because now you can control where their head goes.”
What’s useful about that? Well, say you keep the litter box scrupulously clean, but your cat doesn’t like the location. Once you’ve taught him to touch a target, you can hold the target over the litter box, reward him when he goes in, target him out, target him back in and reward him again, and so on. He may very well decide that the litter box location isn’t so bad after all.
Teaching a cat anything, whether it’s one behavior or 10, brings rewards for both of you. “Once you understand that it’s really easy to train a cat, then it’s more fun interacting with your cat because you realize how smart they are and how willing they are to learn tricks,” Dr. Yin says. “Also, the cat is having more structured interaction with the humans so it’s fun for them.”