Cat lying on tree
As an animal trainer, I enjoy training cats to do simple-yet-unexpected tricks. It’s fun to see the surprise on a person’s face when they see a cat sit or lie down on command. Suddenly, their house cat is an Einstein kitty!

A cat’s ability to learn new tricks is valuable for a variety of reasons, from deepening the cat’s relationship with humans to helping resolve problem behaviors. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a professional to train a cat: Felines are typically willing participants in training when behaviors are broken down into easy-to-learn steps and the cat is rewarded for performing them.

If you and your cat are new to clicker training, begin with a review of training basics, including how to use rewards and marker signals to pinpoint the behavior that’s being rewarded. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to teaching your cat to lie down.

Down, Kitty

“Down” — when the cat moves in to a lying position in response to a command — is an ideal starter trick for cats new to training. Because this is commonly deemed a dog trick, it is impressive and surprising when a feline goes into a down. This trick isn’t just fun, though; down has various real-life applications. It can be used to reinforce resting in designated kitty spaces instead of in other off-limits areas of your home and it can be useful if your cat is prone to dashing through open doors. It also gives your cat a way to interact with people and can be used to replace less desirable behavior like biting hands when playing.

It is important to start with a realistic expectation of what a cat’s down will look like. A cat’s down will likely not exactly mimic the down of a dog. Unlike dogs, who are comfortable plopping themselves onto the floor, many felines prefer to lie down in elevated areas. A cat is also less likely to thrust herself into an immediate down at military pushup pace. Instead, she will more often ease herself into a comfortable lying position at a leisurely pace.

Cats aren’t selective about where and how they lie down because they’re pampered and pompous (at least not most!) — it’s simply part of their nature as both predator and prey. Because down can be a vulnerable position, your cat may prefer following the command on a high, familiar space like a perch, bed or other cat-approved furniture. To make your training go smoothly, teach the down in spaces where your feline is already willing to rest.

Clicker vs. Lure: Two Ways to Train

There are two basic approaches to training a cat to lie down: capturing the down and luring the cat into a down.

Capturing the down. In this hands-off method, you wait for your feline to naturally move into a lying down position. When she does so, mark the behavior (with a click or word) and then reward her. As your cat moves into the down position, give the verbal cue — “down” — and mark and reward as her chest touches the ground. Repeat until your cat readily goes into a down position in anticipation of the reward. As the behavior becomes associated with the cue, the cue can be given earlier, before the cat is about to lie down — for example, when she is stepping onto her bed or perch. With practice, the down cue itself will eventually elicit the behavior.

Luring the cat into the down. This hands-on method is especially useful with felines who are willing to follow a treat or toy. To lure your cat, show her the morsel or small toy you are holding in your clasped fingers or in a closed palm. Begin with the lure near your cat’s nose and slowly lower your hand to the floor at a pace your cat will follow. Sit is the easiest position from which to acquire the down, but the cat can start out in a standing position as well. Your cat may not immediately slide into a down — be ready to reward little steps like her nose moving downward or elbows bending. If your cat stops following the lure, slowly move it back up toward her and show her the hidden item. You may need to upgrade the lure to an even more desirable treat or toy, or you may need to make the training easier by rewarding even minute progress, like the cat remaining in place instead of walking away. Another creative option is to move the lure just below the level of the cat’s elevated space. Your cat may lie down after a few moments to peer over the edge. When she does this, mark and bring the reward up to her. Eventually, you can replace the lure with a hand signal by shaping your hand like it still contains the treat or toy, but with nothing actually inside. Move your hand as before and offer a reward with your other hand when your feline moves into position.

Some cats will learn down in one session, while it make take others several weeks to master. Keep your cat’s training sessions short — 1 to 5 minutes — to hold her interest, and keep the rewards coming. Usually, the more success a cat has with training, the more invested and willing to participate she becomes.

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