Cat and target stick
I recently spent some time working with Vetstreet editor Kristen Seymour, her husband Jared and their 3-year-old rescue cat, Trixie. Trixie was nervous around Jared and didn’t want anything to do with him, which made life hard for their little family. After talking with Kristen about their situation, I suggested that Trixie might benefit from target training, which is teaching a cat to touch a certain part of herself to a person’s hand or another object or area.

I know what you’re thinking: Cats can’t be trained! Training is for dogs! Cats do their own thing, their own way. It’s the cat’s world, and we’re just lucky he lets us live in it.

I understand why cat owners feel this way, but I politely disagree. Cats can be trained — in fact, there are some tremendous benefits to training your cat. Training can help improve problem behaviors and allay fears, and it gives cats and their owners a constructive way to interact. Target training can be a particularly useful approach for cats of all types and personalities.

Joey: A Case Study

Target training can do more than just teach your cat to do clever tricks; it can change the way he relates to people. Take the case of Joey, a beautiful white cat with dazzling blue eyes.

Joey would lash out when he was moved or handled in a way he disliked. His behavior was putting a strain on his relationship with his human family. Joey’s owner arrived for our consultation with a pair of oversize leather work gloves that she put on when it was time to get him back into his carrier. Putting him into the carrier in the first place, she said, was like trying to muscle a bobcat into a cage.

After asking about Joey’s history and watching him interact with his owner, it was clear to me that much of his aggression stemmed from fear. In particular, Joey was afraid of the unpredictable motions of the people around him, especially hands reaching for him.

To help manage his fear, I recommended that Joey learn to touch a target with his nose.

Learning to target changed Joey’s behavior dramatically. For instance, rather than being forced into his a carrier, Joey learned to willingly follow a target into and out of the carrier. We also taught him to jump on and off of things, such as chairs and laps, which minimized the stress of being picked up and moved around. Finally, as the training progressed, human hands stopped being frightening to Joey; instead, he learned to see them as an opportunity for reward, which led to a change in the way he greeted and interacted with people.

Getting Started

The first step is to choose a target. There are a number of options, but the most common is a target stick or a spoon. You will also need a clicker.

Get the cat interested in the target by spreading a soft treat onto it. The treat should be used only to get your cat’s attention during the first few training attempts; after that, it should be removed.

Hold the target a few inches from the cat’s face and slightly to the side. As soon as your cat shows any sign of interest, including moving his body or even just his eyes toward the target, click and reward, either with a lick of the treat you have spread on the target or with a treat offered from your other hand. The goal is to get the cat to walk toward the target and touch it with his nose.

After each successful repetition, gently remove the target by moving it out of sight or putting it behind your back. Present the target again as you’re ready for the next try. If the cat doesn’t touch or seem to notice the target, remove it and then present it again, this time perhaps a little closer to the cat or with a different treat spread on it, as needed.

You can also use your hand as a target. The principle is the same: Present the target (your hand) and click and reward for any interest. Keep in mind that when you are using your hand as a target, it should initially be kept in a predictable position, such as an open palm, a closed fist or a couple of fingers extended.

If needed, get the cat interested in orienting toward your hand by smearing a treat on your extended fingers or holding a solid treat inside your closed hand. However, many cats will naturally investigate a hand that is placed in front of them. Reinforce this behavior by clicking and rewarding.

The Rewards of Target Training

Once your cat is reliably touching the target each time it is held out, you can add a cue, like the word “touch,” to ask for the behavior. Give the cue just before or just as the cat moves toward the target; this will help to create an association between the word and the behavior.

Gradually increase the distance the cat needs to go to touch the target to keep him successful and excited about the target. With practice, your cat should progress from moving a couple of inches to touch the target to following the target even if it is held a few feet away. Eventually, he will learn to move onto or off of an object to get to the target.

Once your cat has mastered targeting, you can get creative in your use of the target. Targeting can be used to get a cat to come when called or to do a trick like jumping through a hoop. You can also use a target to lead your cat easily into his crate or to lure him on or off the sofa or bed.

One note: Every behavior modification plan should begin with a visit to the vet to clear the cat of any medical problem that could be contributing to his behavior. I also recommend lifestyle changes, like adding in more opportunity for play, limiting play to toys rather than human hands and setting up hunts for food. In combination with target training, these strategies can make a noticeable difference in a cat’s behavior.

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