Cat playing with feather toy

Q. I’m getting a kitten and I want to train her to do tricks. Is there a way to raise her so that she will enjoy learning new behaviors and will be easier to train? 

A. Cats are surprisingly smart, and many excel at trick training. Similar to dogs, felines can also learn behaviors like sit, down and roll over, and some can be taught to walk on a leash. In fact, if given the proper motivation, the average cat can be taught just about any creative trick. 

Step One: Socialize

Start by choosing a kitten with a good temperament. Optimally, your kitten should be curious, calm and have less of a startle response. Temperament aside, the best way to raise a cat who is willing to learn new behaviors and perform them in front of people is to provide the right type of socialization during the kitten phase. The primary socialization period for cats begins between 2 and 7 weeks and ends around 14 weeks; this provides a very short window for socializing your kitten.

During this time, your cat is learning about the world, including what is safe and what is unsafe, which makes it important that (once your veterinarian gives the go-ahead) your cat be exposed to as many things as possible that she may encounter later in life, including visitors at your house, trips to the veterinarian, car rides, children and other animals. Keep in mind that anything your cat is not introduced to early on may be perceived by her as unsafe and may cause her to become fearful or aggressive.

Well-socialized cats are most often bolder and more confident, which makes them easier to train. Part of the fun of having a trick cat is showing off your performance in front of family and friends, so having a well-socialized kitten will give you a better chance of getting a cat comfortable enough to perform in front of people.

Kitten socialization classes are gaining popularity as more people realize the importance of exposing kittens to numerous experiences during the time period when they are forming long-term associations. Pairing new things with rewards, such as treats, praise, petting or play, will help get your kitten excited about experiencing new things.

Step Two: Train

One of the main stumbling blocks in training cats is finding the right motivation to get them to believe that training is worth the effort. But if you teach your kitten from a young age that play, petting, praise, treats or anything else she enjoys is available after she performs a behavior such as a sit or wave, then she will understand early on that doing what you ask results in a worthwhile reward.

Clicker training is my preferred training method with cats because it gives your cat immediate feedback when she does something right. In addition, your cat is never forced to participate but will willingly offer behaviors once she realizes that she will be rewarded for them. Rewards may be food, such as canned tuna or cat treats, petting or play. When you start training, keep in mind that in all communication with your kitten, it’s essential to use consistent, positive, gentle interactions, rather than punishment; punishment breaks the bond of trust between you and your kitten and will make training more difficult.

There are several foundational training behaviors that are useful building blocks for teaching other tricks. The first one is to target an object, such as a target stick, which can be used for teaching other behaviors, like a spin or jumping onto a platform. The next is coming when called, which is useful for getting your cat’s attention and getting her right next to you when asked. The third is teaching your cat to go into her crate when asked. You can also capture behavior with your cat by clicking and rewarding when she spontaneously does something you like. Some basic behaviors you can capture are sit, down and wave, which you can click as they naturally occur; later, you can add a verbal command that can be used to ask your cat to perform on demand.