Contrary to belief, cats can be trained. Sure, you need a lot of patience and snacks, but with time cats can learn to walk on a leash, give you a high-five, targeting (touching an object with their paw or an object), and others. Cats might not be as eager to learn as dogs, but they just might surprise you with how much they enjoy learning new tricks.
How can I train my cat?
It might seem like cats get a lot of exercise and they don’t need more stimulation, but all animals, no matter if they are a couch potato or an outdoor hunter, will benefit from a little bit of daily enrichment. Training may be your way of bonding with your cat.
Cats, just like people, react well to positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is defined as giving a certain reward to encourage your pet to behave a certain way. Choosing a motivator, be it their favourite and delicious snack, catnip, interactive play, petting, grooming or a toy, is very important on the long road of teaching your cat certain behaviours. You could also reserve the desirable item for training. It will add value to the reward and make it much more enticing.
You may have heard of Pavlov’s experiment but in case you haven’t, here’s a short summary: During the 1890s Ivan Pavlov was researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed. He predicted, that the dogs would salivate if the food was placed in front of them. He designed an experiment using a bell as a neutral stimulus. As he gave food to the dogs, he also rang the bell. Then, after repeating the procedure a couple of times, he tried ringing the bell without giving them food. He observed that even without the food, an increase in salivation occurred.
One of the easiest ways to train your small flatmate is to use a clicker. A clicker is a small plastic toy with a large button that, after clicking, will make a recognisable sound. Remember, the click should be paired with another small food reward – your cat’s favourite treat or soft cat food on a spoon.
The first step is to make sure your cat associates the click with the reward. Your cat has to understand that after a click, they will immediately receive food. When your cat will hear the click and look up at you eagerly, you will know that your cat has started to understand that the click equals a reward. The reward should be given within 3 seconds, so that you don’t accidentally reward any other behaviour that may follow after.
The next step is to teach your cat to target your fingertips. Hold your finger close to your cat’s nose, wait until they touch it, then click and give them a reward. The click should be as close as possible to the moment your cat touched your fingertips.
Don’t forget that if you wait too long and don’t start associating words with the click and the treat, your cat will begin to think that only the sound of a clicker means a reward, no matter what they do. And we want them to react to words or movements. If you want to try the clicker method, as soon as your cat learns to, for example, sit (just wait for your cat to be in this position naturally) with a clicker, start to pair the word “sit” with the movement, by saying “sit” as your cat moves into a sitting position.
You could also try teaching your cat tricks without a clicker. YouTube is a great source of many videos of people trying different methods. If you want to teach your cat how to high-five, first start by hiding a treat in your hand, moving it above your cat’s head and waiting for them to extend their paw and touch your hand. Then, give them their well-deserved reward. After a few repetitions, start saying “high-five” and using your second hand as well. The hand closest to your cat’s paw should be flat, so that the trainee can easily do a classic high-five. Your second hand should be close behind the first one and hide a treat, which you should give your cat as soon as they extend their paw and touch your first hand. Don’t forget to say “high-five” before each attempt. Next, remove your second hand with the treats and only leave the “high-five” hand. But don’t forget to keep rewarding them after each attempt. You could also reward your cat by saying “good job”, “well done” or “nice” after each successful attempt.
You can also teach your cat targeting, how to shake their paw, spin, and many more.
- Remember to keep the lessons short and natural. Let them dictate how long they want to learn.
- Start small, don’t jump right into complicated tricks and don’t try to teach them everything at once.
- Don’t limit the training to one area – we don’t want your cat to associate the place with the reward. Practice in a few different rooms.
- If it isn’t working, be patient. Teaching a cat new tricks doesn’t take overnight.
- Don’t force your cat. If they don’t want to do it, then they don’t want to do it. Try again later.
- Some cats can’t be taught tricks, no matter how hard you try.
How can I discourage bad behaviour?
Now that we know we can teach our feline friend to do some amazing tricks, we should move on to another segment , how to discourage bad behaviour.
In the previous segment we talked about positive reinforcement. Even when you are trying to discourage your cat from doing something, biting, scratching or destroying your home plants, never, ever physically punish (that includes hitting, kicking, spanking or other ways of intentionally hurting your cat), throw objects nearest to you or yell at your cat. Verbal punishment can increase fear and fear aggression. It also focuses attention on the undesirable behaviour.
Do not scruff your cat as well. It’s no longer a recommended method and can cause them pain. An alternative, safe way of transporting your misbehaving cat is to gently put a blanket over them and scoop the cat up inside it. It will allow you to transport your cat without stressing it out even further.
Negative reinforcement does not work, and you might even create a distrust in your relationship. It may also lead to fear, fear aggression, stress, and stress-associated behaviour and health problems.
The problem will probably continue anyway, it might just happen when you are away.
Strengthening the relationship between you and your feline friend is very important. Make sure the time you spend with your cat is satisfying and entertaining. If your cat is bored, and they don’t have anything to play with, they might act out and bite, scratch or chew your furniture or items such as electrical wires. Make sure to play and spend a little bit of time with your cat every day. Unwanted behaviour might be their way of trying to get your attention.
A non-toxic but effective way of discouraging your cat from chewing certain objects, is to spray bitter apple around the problem area.
Another way is to put double-sided tape around the object your cat is interested in.
You could also gently put them in a timeout room without any people for 10-20 minutes. Your cat’s attitude could change and a different cat might emerge from the room.