Can you train your cat?
There are cats all over the world that will come when called, sit when asked and can even be taught to give their owners a high-five, but for some reason the perception of cats as ‘un-trainable’ persists. The good news is that most cats – even the most independent – are easy to communicate with and more than capable of learning new skills. All it takes is the right incentive.
‘Unfortunately, our feline friends are often wrongly viewed as disobedient and stubborn – when, in fact, they are supremely intelligent and extremely trainable,’ says Kim Houston, one of the UK’s leading cat behaviourists. ‘However, the key to training them lies in understanding what motivates them, and using positive, reward-based techniques.’
Training not only helps to keep your cat’s mind as agile as his or her body, but can also help to strengthen your bond. And in the case of recall – or coming on command – it might even help to draw your cat away from potentially dangerous situations.
A dog-on approach
Anna Webb, the co-host of BBC Radio London’s The Barking Hour, who is also a dog trainer and an animal nutritionist, began cat training by accident when a stray kitten moved into her home.
The tiny black-and-white cat appeared five years ago in the garden of Anna’s London flat. Despite first being soundly barked at by her Bull Terrier, Molly, the kitten was determined to stay.
‘After three days he was still in the garden,’ Anna recalls. ‘He started watching us through the window and then began tapping the glass to get our attention!’ Anna had never owned a cat before but, when attempts to find the kitten’s owner were unsuccessful, she christened him Gremlin and he moved in for good, soon becoming the best of friends with Molly.
‘I’ve always had dogs and had no idea what to do with a cat,’ Anna admits. ‘So I treated Gremlin like a dog, as that was all I knew – and that meant training him. He started watching my sessions with Molly and quickly learnt how she earns her treats. Molly always works for her food, and that’s how she, and Gremlin, became trained to such a high standard.’
Gremlin began mimicking Molly and was soon taking treats from Anna’s hand, too. In no time he had mastered a reliable recall, would sit on command and even learnt to give great high-fives. Then, when they later moved to the Buckinghamshire countryside, Gremlin also began joining Anna and Molly on their walks – much to the local villagers’ amusement.
‘I think a lot of cat owners have this idea that their moggie won’t respond to commands, and it prevents them from trying any training techniques,’ Anna says. ‘I didn’t have any preconceptions, and just approached Gremlin as I would any other pet. Happily, his response has been astounding.’
Click and treat
So how do you train your own cat to the same level? Kim recommends clicker training as the most effective way to teach cats. A clicker is a small plastic device that makes a distinct sound. You can put it into action by ‘clicking’ it every time your cat performs the behaviour you want (for example, coming when called) and then giving a reward.
‘Your cat learns to associate the sound of the clicker with a treat,’ Kim explains. ‘Cats’ natural instincts compel them to hunt – to work for their food – and they’re generally food-motivated. So always make sure the click is followed by an immediate edible reward. For the best chance of success, it’s important to find extra-special treats, such as small pieces of cooked chicken.’ Keep in mind that when rewarding your cat in this way, you’ll need to monitor her overall intake of calories.
‘You’ll find that clicker training is fun and stimulating for your cat and, helpfully, it can also improve any less-welcome behaviours,’ Kim says. ‘I’ve used the same technique to teach cats to enter their travel baskets with ease, where previously they were too frightened or reluctant to even approach the carrier.’
Gain from training
Teaching a cat to sit or give a paw is simply expanding their natural abilities, and most cats will be happy to do this with the right motivation. However, it’s key that you approach training sessions in the right way. Never punish your cat for getting something wrong, or force them to do something while training. Keep your sessions short: no longer than five minutes, and always finish on a positive note by making sure your cat is still enjoying the activity and hasn’t lost interest or become irritated, before you end it.
Another good tip from Kim is to choose times for training when your cat isn’t tired or distracted, but is a little hungry. That way, treats will seem all the more appealing.
As a bonus, the time you spend with your cat while training is a brilliant way of strengthening your bond together. Investing time and effort in these sessions is well worth the reward; you’ll not only be stimulating your cat’s mind and enriching his or her life, but you’ll also actively be having fun together with your pet. And that may really be something worth high-fiving about.
THREE TRICKS TO TRY WITH YOUR KITTEN
- To teach your cat to fetch, rub some of the water from a can of tuna on her favourite toy and throw it just out of reach. This will engage their natural hunting skills.
- If your cat walks to the toy or picks it up, ‘click’ and give a treat. Be patient – it may take a few sessions for your cat to get the idea.
- If your cat brings the toy towards you, click and treat. Your cat will then release the toy to eat the treat. Once he or she is reliably retrieving the toy, you can add the cue word ‘fetch’ each time you throw it.
- Sit on the floor with a clicker in one hand (out of your cat’s sight) and a treat in the other. Then call your cat to you.
- Hold the treat slightly above your cat’s head. As a cat’s eyes follow the treat, they’ll automatically take a sitting position. Then ‘click’ and reward.
- As your cat becomes more proficient, reward him or her only for a very good sitting position. When your pet is reliably sitting nine times out of 10, start adding the cue word ‘sit’.
- Call your cat to you, encouraging recall by using a high-value reward such as a piece of chicken.
- You can then start to engage your cat’s natural ‘paw’ action by getting him or her to reach up for the treat. Hold the piece of chicken above your cat’s nose, and wait for them to reach up with a paw. When they do so, add a command word like ‘tap’, then praise and reward.
- Practise this daily, as a fun game with your cat, and you’ll soon be receiving high-fives on command.