Most people believe that cats can’t be trained because cats don’t seem to respond to many of the methods used to train dogs. But cats do respond to training! In fact one of the first scientific studies highlighting the importance of reinforcement in animal behavior was done with cats.
The first step to training your cat is to understand him. Cats aren’t as social as dogs. Dogs have been bred specifically to work together with people, whereas the primary reason cats were domesticated was to kill vermin on their own. So they’re independent, and they aren’t as naturally inclined to work for praise and attention as dogs are. They’re also not as easy to motivate. You have to use really special treats that your cat finds irresistible. Training a cat requires some creativity and patience.
Training your cat has important benefits. You’re stimulating his body and his mind, which helps keep him healthy. And spending time together means you’re strengthening the bond you share. In addition to teaching fun tricks like wave and fetch, you can also teach him a range of useful behaviors like sit, stay and to come when called. You could even teach your cat to pee in the toilet and flush afterwards!
Use Tasty Treats
The first step is to find a treat that your cat goes crazy for. Fresh chicken diced in tiny cubes, bits of tuna, meat-flavored baby food, and commercial cat treats are all good choices. Once you’ve identified treats your cat likes, follow the basic steps of positive reinforcement training (reward-based training) to teach him the behavior you want. Suppose you’d like your cat to sit and stay on a stool while you prepare his dinner. You’ll first need to start with teaching him to sit when you ask him to:
- First, make sure you have your cat’s attention. Hold the tasty treat in your fingers right at your cat’s nose. When your cat begins to sniff the treat, slowly move it in an arc from his nose up just over his head between his ears. (Don’t raise it straight up, or you’ll be teaching your cat to stand on his rear legs rather than sit!) Many cats will follow this arc motion with their eyes and nose, and as their chin raises up and back, their butt will go down.
- Second, the instant your cat’s bottom hits the floor, praise him and offer him the treat. If his rear doesn’t go all the way down on the first try, give him the treat anyway. Over several repetitions of practice, give him a treat each time his rear gets slightly closer, until he’s gets into a complete sit with his rear all the way on the floor.
Cats don’t see things well that are still and close-up, so if your cat has difficulty taking the treat from your fingers, try offering it to him in your flat palm or tossing it on the floor. He’ll see the movement when you toss it and know where the treat is.
Use a Clicker
A clicker can make training easier and faster. If you don’t have a clicker, you can use a pen that makes a clicking sound. The instant your cat does the correct behavior, click and then offer a treat. The click lets your cat know the instant he does the right thing, so it helps him catch on faster. Just make sure you click at the exact moment he does the behavior you want, and then give him a treat. Cats learn through repetition, just like we do, so you’ll need to practice a few times in a row. Keep your training sessions short though—just a few minutes at a time. Most cats get bored if you try to drill the same thing over and over.
While training your cat, keep in mind that cats respond very poorly to punishment! Rather than learning what behavior not to do, a punished cat usually just learns to run away. Depending on your cat’s temperament, punishment can frighten your cat to the point where he may hide from you and your family members. Punishment creates stress, and stress is one of the most common causes for problem behaviors in cats, including eliminating outside of the litter box and compulsive grooming. Stress also compromises the immune system, making your cat more vulnerable to disease, including feline idiopathic cystitis (inflammation of the bladder).
It’s much easier to train your cat when you reward behaviors you want and offer him more attractive alternatives for behaviors you don’t want. Persuasion, not punishment, is the key to training your cat. If you patiently practice and reward your cat with treats, you’ll soon have a cat who’s sitting on cue and purring contentedly.
Finding Help and More Information
If you’d like to learn how to train your cat, or if your cat has a behavior problem you’d like to resolve, don’t hesitate to seek help from a qualified behaviorist. To learn more about locating the right expert for you and your cat, please see our article, Finding Professional Help. Many Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) offer telephone consultations, in-home private consultations and training sessions, and some Certified Professional Dog Trainers also offer group classes for kitten socialization and basic training.
Here are a few books and links to explore:
- Clicker Training for Cats Fun Kit by Karen Pryor
- Teaching Your Cat Simple Tricks by Arden Moore
- Cat Behavior and Training: Veterinary Advice for Owners by Ackerman, Landsberg and Hunthausen
- Good Owners, Great Cats by Kilcommons and Wilson
- International Cat Agility Tournaments