When we consider training, we automatically think of dogs. Dogs are trained for obedience, for work on farms or to detect drugs, illegally imported items, even cancers. Training does not generally bring up a vision of a cat obeying your every word. Yet, cats can be trained.
What commands can cats learn?
Cats can learn all sorts of commands – to come when called, to sit, to roll over, to shake a paw. Cats like to do things in their own good time, so to train them we need to be really motivated, set aside some time and above all, be patient. Remember, cats are individuals and each one will react differently when training begins. Some will ignore you or look at you as if you are mad, whilst others will be very curious and eager.
Teach one trick at a time. You can reinforce tricks your cat has mastered, but don't confuse her by teaching more than one new behaviour at a time.
How to train a cat
Cats, like dogs, are motivated to do things in life that benefit them. Seeking tasty morsels of food or a game with a favourite toy are prime cat activities. Usually it is the cat who demands these from their owners. So let’s turn it around. Use these motivators to your advantage.
The recall command
When your cat demands food, or preferably just before she is likely to become hungry, call her to you. Say her name and issue a command – “Tiger, Come”. If you are also shaking the biscuits or opening the can of cat food, your cat is very likely to respond. Extend the recall to other situations, such as when you pick up their favourite toy. Before long, if your cat is consistently rewarded when she comes to you, she will come every time you call.
Ringing the bell
Outdoor cats can be frustrating or even destructive in their efforts to come back inside. Try suspending a small but loud bell on a string at your cat's eye level. Ignore the meowing, scratching and other efforts to get your attention. Eventually, your cat will touch that bell and make it ring, at which point you reward her by opening the door. If this is repeated several times, your cat will soon learn to ring the bell deliberately.
The sit and Hi 5 commands
All cats sit, so teaching this is easy. As your cat sits, say “Sit”, then praise her, pat her or give her a treat. Also introduce a hand signal, such as your hand held vertically in a stop sign, to further help your cat learn. You can quickly extend this training to have your cat join in a ‘Hi 5’ with you, where she raises a paw to your hand. First, encourage any tiny movements of her paw by giving a cat a treat each time her paw moves off the ground. Then, with the treat wrapped in your fist, wait for her to use her paw to try to grab it, then give her treat as her reward. Gradually lift your hand higher and when your cat touches your hand with her paw, reward her.
The rules of training
- Work with the behaviours that your cat performs naturally to make it easy for her to obey. Then progress to more difficult commands.
- Rewards are the key to motivating your cat. If you are using food and your cat is not responding, she may not be hungry enough. Try a training session before a meal. (But don’t 'starve' your cat to make them eager to learn as a hungry cat will quickly become an annoyed one.)
- With time, you can lessen the use of treats. Your praise or a pat may be a good enough reward on occasion.
- Eliminate any distracting noise from the TV or stereo during training time as it will make the process almost impossible.
- Keep training sessions short, ending them before your cat gets bored or tired. Always finish a training session on a positive note and remember that, just like us, sometimes cats are not in the mood.
- If possible, train your cat regularly, preferably every day. Training your cat once a month won't get the results you want.
Benefits of training
- Training an animal exercises its mind. Not only will you have a more intelligent companion but also one who is calm at other times.
- Training their cat can bring immense joy to owners. Imagine hiding food under a tea towel or lightweight, plastic cups and your cat finding her treats.
- Training your cat can keep her out of danger. If you need her to come to you if she escapes out on to a road, for instance, having a recall command can ensure your cat stays safe.
About Dr Joanne Righetti
Dr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at www.petproblemsolved.com.au