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If you’re new to training — or just want to up your cat’s training game — consider teaching her to target.
Targeting behavior — where the cat touches an object (typically a training target, a spoon or your hand) with her head or nose — can be useful in a variety of situations. A target can be used to encourage a cat to move to a certain spot — on to the exam table at the vet’s, for instance — or to direct a cat away from a potentially problematic situation. It can be helpful when you are introducing your cat to new people or new situations. And it can be the foundation of other behaviors, like jumping through a hoop, rolling over or spinning.
In its most simple form, target training can help to build trust and communication by providing a predictable and mutually understood way for you and your cat to interact.
Start by holding the target off to the side of your cat's face, just out of her sight. Then slowly move it into her field of vision in a way that catches her attention but isn’t startling or threatening. Mark and reward any interest your cat shows in the target — a glance, a slight move toward the target or even an actual touch — and move the target away. Repeat this process: Present the target, mark and reward any interest, remove the target. If your cat is fearful of new things, you may need to present the target at a distance and reward her simply for glancing at it or not running away.
Repeat the process of moving the target out of your cat’s sight and presenting it again — this makes it more likely that the target will catch her interest when it reappears. If your cat doesn’t look at or move toward the item, move it away and then present it in a slightly different fashion (holding it at a slightly higher or lower angle, for example).
Be sure your cat is interested and attending to you during the training session. If she is distracted by something else, take a break and try again later, perhaps in a less distracting area.
If your cat is reluctant to move toward the target, consider smearing a small amount of a soft treat on the end of the stick. Present the target with the treat on it and when your cat reaches out to sniff or lick the treat, mark and reward her interest and movement with one or two licks of the treat. As she gets accustomed to the target, remove the treat spread and continue to reward her for touching the empty target.
Once your cat is readily touching the target with her nose or mouth, a verbal cue like “touch” can be added to the visual signal of the target. Give the cue — “touch” — just as your cat starts to move toward the target. Work with your cat until you are giving the cue just slightly before the cat moves to the target itself.
With practice, you can use the target to teach your cat to move on and off objects and surfaces or to do tricks like spin or sit. As with all training, vary the difficulty to help keep your cat’s enthusiasm high. In between asking for more complicated behaviors like a spin, reward her for something simple like just touching her nose to the target.
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