By Jennifer Van Valkenburg
I actually came to cat training completely by accident. My kitty was overweight and unhealthy so her vet recommended an entirely new lifestyle. This came with adding exercise (I remember thinking, how do you exercise a cat? – more on that later) and a new food regimen. No more leaving a pile of food in her dish every day, now her diet was strictly controlled. So now instead of eating whenever she wanted, she had to wait for me to feed her twice a day.* The first few days she would pace and meow until her food was ready, so I started waiting until she was quiet to feed her. It only took a few days of this for me to notice her change in behavior. Now, every time she wanted something, she’d come over to me, give me eye contact and sit quietly. She had figured out this was how she got food, so she started adapting it to other things she wanted, like petting or brushing for example. We’d built a foundation, a language of sorts, and I realized I could build on that.
I immediately wanted to do more. But how can you train cats? See Clicker Training for Cats, BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp. 16-23 for much more on that. Indeed, the more I read and the more information I sought out, I learned that cats are highly trainable. Cats are domesticated and live with us so are familiar with our body language and have, usually, already worked out ways to communicate. Any animal can be trained, you just have to build trust and figure out what motivates them. So I set out to do what I had formerly believed impossible. I was going to train my cat to sit on cue.
The first step when you set out to train a behavior is to first make sure you have a connection and trust between you and your animal. Never force your pet to do anything they don’t want to do. Watch them for signs of boredom or worry and the second you see those (and preferably before they appear), the training session is over. Each training session shouldn’t last more than a few minutes in any case. Short, positive sessions are best.
For many animals, the easiest and most effective motivation is a yummy treat. Go for something small and easy to hold. Perhaps a packet of kibble will work. Some cats may only work for something they deem to be of higher value. I have even used a spoonful of pumpkin for some picky eaters. However, not all cats are interested in food. For some, the best motivation is brushing or petting, or maybe they just enjoy a play session with you. Finding what your cat finds most reinforcing may take a bit of time, but once you hone in on it, it’ll be the key to your success.
Now you’re ready to take your first steps into feline training! Get your cat’s attention and come down to floor level with them. First up, give them a treat just for showing up. Doing this will encourage them to stay and see what’s going on and hope to get a few more treats. Next, start holding the treat a little high, above their head so they have to look up for the treat. After they are comfortable with that, move the treat back behind their head (while still above them). Some cats will turn around and go for the treat but some cats will simply sit down in order to move their heads into position for the treat. When you get kitty to sit the first time immediately give her the treat and lots of praise. You may elect to use a clicker instead, which is a great idea. The idea is to make a positive connection between this is what I would like you to do and you get a reward for doing so. Remember, training takes a lot of time and patience. Don’t give up, but if you feel yourself getting frustrated simply end the session. Training should be a fun, positive experience for your cat.
Once kitty gets the hang of it, the rest is basic repetition. Every day, randomly have her sit then give her the treat. After you’ve mastered this, start removing the treat and replace it with simple hand gestures. I’ve found that hand gestures work better than voice cues. Words contain tone which can confuse animals because they sound different if the user is stressed out or angry vs. happy and relaxed – even when the word is the same. This is also where a clicker is helpful.
Once you have trained your kitty to sit on cue, you can move on to other tricks and behaviors. You can teach your kitty to walk on a harness and leash for some quality outside time, or maybe do some target training to get her to stop jumping up on the kitchen countertops. The future is shiny and hopefully with your new training tools in your back pocket. Remember, patience and building trust are the key. Pass on the knowledge and Impress your friends, show off to your family and most important of all, continue to strengthen the bond between you and your cat.
You can find your local feline behavior professional here: https://petprofessionalguild.com/Find-Your-Feline-Professional
For more resources on cats, see: https://petprofessionalguild.com/Feline-Resources
About the Author
Jennifer Van Valkenburg is a feline trainer and behavior consultant (Animal Behavior Institute) who operates Natural Healthy Cats in Woodland Hills, California.
*New feeding guidelines published by the American Association of Feline Practitioners recommend feeding cats multiple small meals throughout the day. For more information, go to https://www.catvets.com/guidelines/practice-guidelines/how-to-feed.