Clicker training a cat
"You can’t train a cat! Cats train people — that’s how it works."

I hear this all the time from friends and clients alike — and I always disagree. As an animal trainer, I’m on a mission to increase awareness that cats can, indeed, be trained. Positive reinforcement training (which is widely recognized as useful in training dogs) can be extremely beneficial for cats. The benefits of this type of training include resolution of certain behavioral issues and an increased bond between pets and pet owners. Your cat can also benefit from the physical and mental stimulation of training, as well as the emotional boost and positive associations created by reward-based methods.

Before diving into the principles behind cat training, though, it’s important to address the most common stumbling block for many pet owners: The idea of getting a cat to do anything the cat does not want to do on her own can seem ridiculous. After all, cats are not the type of creature who can be forced to do much of anything against their will — just ask anyone who’s tried to put a resistant cat into a carrier for a vet trip.

The good news is that the best type of training for cats is done in a nonconfrontational manner where the feline willingly participates. In other words, you’re not forcing your cat to do something she doesn’t want to do — you’re teaching her to want to do what you’re asking.

How to Motivate Your Cat

I know what you’re thinking: Willing participation… from a cat? Absolutely! After all, this same type of positive reinforcement training is commonly used in zoo settings with your cat’s predatory relatives, the lion, cheetah and tiger. For both predatory cats and domesticated felines, the key to training is to communicate with them in an effective manner. And positive reinforcement training allows you to do just that.

The fist step in training your cat is to find the right reward — something your cat is willing to work for. Sure, it would be great if your cat would do what you ask simply because she wants to please you. But think about it this way: As much as you might love your job, you would most likely stop showing up if your company did away with your salary and benefits. Your cat feels the same way: She’s willing to do what you ask — and might even enjoy it! — but you’ve got to make it worth her while.

Odds are, you are already offering your cat a variety of rewards, such as treats or toys, throughout the day. Training means switching from rewarding your cat for just being your cat to rewarding her for specific behaviors. In other words, all those treats and toys need to become contingent on the cat doing what you ask her to do.

Reinforce and Reward

The behavior you are asking for doesn’t have to be complicated; you can start with something your cat already does naturally, like sitting on her perch. The key is to teach your cat to associate the behavior with the reward. A simple way to do this is by using a marker to pinpoint behavior that’s being reinforced. The marker specifies the correct behavior as it happens and links it with the reward that follows.

I prefer to use a clicker to mark desired behavior when I’m training a cat, but a specific word, like “good” or “yes” can also be used as a marker — just be consistent about the word you use. Because the marker is not innately rewarding in itself, it is important that you always follow the signal with a reward (ideally within one to two seconds of the click or word). And, of course, the reward should be something your cat really likes: a lick of a soft treat, playtime with a special toy or access to a desired place, for example.

Cats are adept at reading people and figuring out which behaviors will work to get the outcome they desire, which helps them to learn new behaviors quickly. This may be why it so frequently appears as though the cat has trained the people: She has learned, through experience, that certain behaviors (meowing and pawing) garner desired results (petting or food). Of course, this is exactly what makes reward-based training so effective: Your cat quickly learns which behaviors bring the best results.

Plan Ahead

When it comes time for the training, it’s important to start with an idea of what the final behavior will look like when it’s finished. This serves as a road map for the training. Sometimes a cat naturally does a behavior on her own, such as a sit, and this can be marked and rewarded when it occurs.

But more difficult behaviors may need to be taught in steps, starting with something simple. For instance, if you are teaching your cat to high five, you may start by rewarding for a sit. From there, you can add other behaviors, such as high paw raise while sitting. Eventually, your cat will learn to put all the pieces together. Keep in mind, though, that more complicated tricks — those that require multiple steps — may require extra special rewards, like a nibble of your cat’s absolute favorite tasty treat.

Once your cat is reliably doing a behavior or trick, you can add a verbal cue to the clicker. Start by saying the word, such as “sit,” just as your cat does the behavior; this helps to create an association between the word and the cat’s action. You may have to repeat this process a number of times before your cat begins to associate the word (“sit”) with the action (sitting), but eventually you will be ready to progress to saying the word just before your cat does the behavior (rather than as she is doing it). After each successful pairing of the word and the behavior, reward your cat.

After enough repetitions, your cat will learn to pair the word with the action and will respond to hearing the cue by doing the behavior — in anticipation, of course, of her reward.

Keep It Simple

Training doesn’t need to be overwhelming for you or your cat. Shorter sessions, lasting from 20 seconds to five minutes, are actually best. Choose training with minimal distractions, such as in a room where the cat is already comfortable. In addition, it is important that you get in the habit of routinely rewarding desired behaviors in normal interactions with your cat, to reinforce the desired behavior.

If you’re trying to resolve a problem behavior, it’s important to know in advance what you want your cat to do in place of the unwanted behavior, as your efforts are best spent building and rewarding desired behavior rather than on eliminating unacceptable behavior. For example, if your cat demands attention and petting by pawing and vocalizing, you will need to teach her both that this behavior doesn’t work any longer and that sitting quietly on her perch does.

If your cat has serious behavior issues and does not respond to training, it is important to know that there are various resources available to you. Rather than giving up and just living with an unresolved issue, or resorting to surrender, seek out qualified help, such as with a veterinary behaviorist, veterinarian or a reward-based training professional working in combination with a veterinarian.

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