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Believe it or not, cats can learn new tricks with relative ease. And of all the tricks to teach, down is one of the most hands-off, simplest behaviors to train. In fact, for many cats, the more relaxed and at ease you are, the more likely the cat will settle in and rest, thus providing opportunity to reinforce the down position.
In other words, this is a trick you can work on while you and your cat are lounging together on the sofa.
Lying down on command is a trick even beginning trainers and trainee felines can master. Keep training sessions with your cat short — one to five minutes or so — and offer ample rewards during the process to keep your cat interested.
Start by training in a location where your cat already likes to lie down (the sofa, your bed, your cat’s favorite perch). Choosing a spot where your feline is already inclined to lounge allows you to teach the trick in a completely hands-off fashion by allowing the cat to naturally move into a resting position. If it helps, make the space more enticing with a fleecy blanket or soft rug; the goal is to get your cat interested in settling in.
To teach your cat to lie down on cue, start by marking and rewarding her natural inclination to lie down. As she begins to move into a resting position, give the cue — “down” — and mark it with a word (“good”) or a click. Immediately follow with a reward. The marker helps your cat to learn what the desired behavior is, and the reward teaches her to associate good things with the behavior.
Initially, your cat may be confused by the reward. Don’t be deterred by this; consistent training builds on the cat’s ability to learn the connection between cause (the behavior) and effect (the reward). In the same way, pairing the cue (“down”) with the action of lying down teaches her to associate the word with the action — and the reward. As you repeat this sequence — giving the cue, marking the behavior, rewarding your cat — she will learn that lying down in response to the cue is an action worth performing.
In some cases, a lure can be used to encourage a cat to lie down. The lure might be a treat held in a closed hand, a favorite toy, or a target stick or spoon. Ideally, the lure is held in front of and slightly below the cat while she is perched on a slightly elevated space, like a chair or cat tree. As the cat moves to investigate the lure, mark and reward any sign that she is moving into a lying position, from a slight elbow bend to her chest lowering closer to the surface below. Work up to having her fully resting in a down position.
If your cat jumps off the perch or chair, use the lure to encourage her back up onto the elevated space before starting again.
Eventually, you will want to fade the lure. To do this, move from holding the lure where your cat can see it to holding it in your closed palm. This teaches her to follow your hand, not the lure. Continue to reward her with a treat when she lies down, but give the treat with your other hand (not the one holding the lure).
Eventually, remove the hidden item completely from your closed hand and just give the hand signal. At this point, you can add a verbal cue, like “down,” to the behavior by saying it one to two seconds before giving the hand signal. With practice, your cat should begin to anticipate the verbal cue and move into a down when she hears it.
For both training strategies, build duration the cat remains in the down by rewarding the feline intermittently for remaining in the resting position. At the end of the exercise, use a release word like “free” to signal the end of the request to remain lying down.
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