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“Kitty, stay!” This is probably not a phrase you have ever imagined saying to your cat — or one you have ever imagined her obeying. But it may be time to reconsider. Cats are capable of learning many of the tricks typically associated with dogs, including down, come and, yes, even stay.
Having a cat who stays on command is more than just a party trick though — a stay can be highly useful in a variety of real-life situations. Teaching your cat to stay can help keep her out of off-limits areas and help prevent her from dashing out an open door. Stay can also be useful at the veterinarian’s office or the groomer's, where she will need to remain still during various types of handling.
As with all behaviors, the type of training influences your cat’s success. You will have little luck in forcing a cat into obedience. Instead, positive reinforcement training encourages your cat to willingly do the behavior you are asking for by making it pay off in ways she understands and desires.
Before you begin teaching your cat to stay, she will need to have mastered a foundational behavior like sit, down or go to a spot. This allows her to be in a specific position (a sit or down) or place (a perch or mat) when she is asked to stay. It’s also important that you understand how cats are best motivated and trained, including how to use a marker signal and rewards, before you begin training.
Your first step is to choose a low-distraction environment, away from anything that draws your cat’s attention, like children or other pets. Start by asking your cat to move into the position or place where you would like her to stay — in other words, ask for a sit or down, or ask her to go to her spot.
Once your cat is in position, make a slight movement. Mark and reward if your cat remains stationary. The movement can be as subtle as blinking your eyes or shifting your weight from one foot to the other. As your cat begins to catch on, progress to bigger movements like taking a step back or crossing your arms. Continue to mark and reward after each movement.
In the beginning, ask your cat to stay for only a very short duration — baby steps ensure the highest chance of success by convincing your cat that the behavior is worthwhile. As your cat progresses into longer stays, every once in a while, add in short duration stays to keep her interested.
If your cat breaks the stay, make the distraction smaller. Waiting a second or two without adding a distraction may also be helpful for some felines. Never punish your cat if she breaks the stay; simply reset and try again. And as always, keep training sessions short to keep your cat excited about training.
After each successful stay, reward your cat with something she finds desirable: a tasty treat, a special toy or some petting. If possible, give the reward while she is in her sit or down, or on her spot. After rewarding, she may be out of position and need to reset into a sit or down for the next try.
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