Tricks, clickers, commands … Those are just for dogs, right?
Contrary to popular belief, cats are trainable. You can teach them useful behaviours as well as novelty tricks. You can even train them to compete in agility tournaments.
There are some differences between the way cats and dogs are trained, of course. Cats aren’t as likely to be motivated by praise as dogs. Cats are also less instinctively driven to work in partnership with their human companions. But that doesn’t mean they’re not superstars in waiting. With the right methods — and a little creativity on your part — your cat will soon amaze you with the things he can learn.
Remember: Cats respond to positive reinforcement, not negative punishment
Cats should only be taught new behaviours with positive, reward-based training. Punishment and dominance are not healthy methods, nor are they effective. “Punishment creates stress, and stress is one of the most common causes for problem behaviours in cats, including eliminating outside of the litter box and compulsive grooming,” says the ASPCA website. So with that in mind, here are some steps to get you started:
1. The best reinforcements you can use are treats — but not just any treats. ”My foster cats love to train with me,” says Jane Harrell, Petfinder’s senior producer and long-time cat foster mom. “But they won’t work for just anything. They want the soft, gooey, stinky treats.” And Jane’s fosters aren’t alone. Many cats need something special to motivate them. This means you should toss the kibble back in the cat food bin and look through your cabinets for the good stuff your cat loves. Diced chicken or turkey, low-sodium tuna, meat-flavoured baby food and commercial cat treats might be effective, depending on your cat’s individual preferences.
2. Get your cat used to receiving rewards in response to specific behaviours. Start with a simple trick to show your cat that good things happen during your training sessions.
3. Practice, practice, practice… but not too much. Repeat this training process several times in a row so that your cat learns why he’s getting rewarded.
You don’t want to wear your cat out or bore him, but you do want to drive home the relationship between a particular reward and behaviour — as well as the command associated with that behaviour. The Cat Language Bible recommends teaching only one command or trick at a time and limiting sessions to 10 to 15 minutes of practicing. You will, however, want to repeat the routine again the next day and continue it on a regular basis so that your cat doesn’t forget what he’s learned.
4. Try using a clicker to reinforce timing and – eventually — cut down on treats.
It’s important for your cat to be rewarded as soon as she performs the desired action, but it can be difficult for many people to time their rewards precisely with their cat’s behaviour. A clicker can help with timing by introducing a sound that tells the cat that what they just did was good. To teach your cat what the clicker means, “charge” the clicker by clicking and treating your cat without requesting any action. After a few times your cat will learn that the clicker noise means good things are coming and, eventually, the clicker can be its own reward. You now have an aid for perfecting the timing of a reward.
5. Once your cat has fully mastered his first trick, move on to others. Using treats and your clicker, you can introduce common tricks like “down,” “stay” and “come.” But feel free to get creative. You might also want to consider teaching your cat practical behaviours like how to walk on a leash.
If you’re committed to teaching your cat tricks but are having trouble with the process, contact a trainer in your area. Just be sure that he or she has expertise in working with cats. Also be certain that anyone you hire shares your belief in positive reinforcement.