A cat is not a dog, but a cat can still be trained. A cat can learn obedience, tricks, manners, and even life-saving behaviors just as well as a dog can. Initially, dog owners can even draw on their canine training experiences to train their cats. That said, it’s also important to be aware that cats are different from dogs. This article will share how I started out as a dog person who happened to have a cat, then became a cat person who is passionate about enriching the lives of felines.
Two years ago, I wrote my first article sharing the benefits of cat training. Foremost of these was that training builds a bond between owner and pet. I’d seen my relationship strengthened with my dog when we enrolled in obedience classes, and felt the same could hold true for our cats. Of course, any activity (including simply playing with them) that I elect to do with our cats will have the potential to enhance their lives, and so the question of why train cats remains.
Well, I also quickly became a firm believer that training has the additional benefit of keeping cats’ minds stimulated, which ultimately makes cats happier and healthier. Indeed, I never cease to be amazed at how curious and inventive cats are, and so never want to neglect the intellectual growth of our own cat trio. To that end, I bought books that tells how to teach cats tricks. None of the tricks take more than a few minutes per day to practice and integrating them allows me to mix-up our training sessions. One of Cinder’s favorite tricks is “kiss”. She’s enjoys sniffing my face maybe because it lets her know what I’ve been up to, and “kiss” just builds on that behavior. I taught her to “kiss” simply by holding a treat up to my mouth for her to take. Some other tricks such as “jump” fall under the category of agility, which is a separate training topic that I’ll write about later this week.
Over the past year, partly because of reading books specific to understanding cat behavior, I’ve come to recognize that there are other benefits to training cats too such as it keeps them safe. The most important obedience command is the recall command, which brings a pet to the caller from a distance. Why is this so important? Because one day it may save your pet’s life. If you can bring your cat running by calling ‘come’, you can avoid such crises as a cat getting off its leash, escaping through the front door, or running into traffic. We used this command with our first cat, who had come to us as a stray and never lost her love of being outside.
Other obedience commands are more about teaching manners. For example, Rainy likes to get my attention by using my legs as a scratching post. She also often makes a nuisance of herself at meal times by sticking her face into our plates of food. We’ve been breaking her of those habits by teaching her instead to sit. “Leave it” is another command I’ve worked on with all three of our cats. To teach them to show respect for one another’s food, I’ll place treats in front of one cat and order the others to “leave it”. This command also doubles as another way to encourage cats who like to beg for food to act less obnoxious.
The newest concept to me is that training cats can teach them important routines. This is especially important for those shy and anxious cats. Several months into having adopted a former feral, we discovered that crating her was going to be a challenge, and yet crating her would be critical if we were to ever take her to the vet. Bootsie hates being picked, and picking her up to deposit her in a crate would add unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation. If I managed to lure her into a crate with treats, having learned to be on high alert due to outdoor dangers, she popped out the instant I tried to close the crate door. The solution? Besides buying a more spacious and open crate, I also began to teach her the routine of using the crate. The first step was to put a soft cat bed in the bottom of the crate. The second step was to serve her meals in the crate. The third step was to gradually get her used to having the door closed while she was in the crate. After months of training, I can now close the crate doors and even leave Bootsie locked up while I perform a chore in another room, all without fazing her. When we took her to the vet a few month ago, luring her into the crate and locking her in was simple and completely stress free.
Cats in general don’t like change, and so routines can even benefit your most happy-go-lucky cat. For example, our three cats know when I’ll groom them. They also know that treats will accompany each session. If I’m even five minutes late, they’ll all gather in the kitchen to wait for me. This sure beats my having to seek them out and round them up!
Interested in training your cats? Experts will advise that the first step is to accept that cats aren’t dogs. They won’t work for praise and attention the way dogs will. Due to their independent nature, cats aren’t as easily motivated either. As a dog person who found herself with a cat I must confess that I based my cat training on what I knew from training dogs. Some of it worked. Like dogs, cats will work for treats, and patience and persistence is a must.
But the more I learn about cat behavior, the more respect I’ve developed for the differences between cats and dogs. An example can be drawn from agility. Jumps and tunnels are many dogs’ favorite obstacles. There are even entire courses built solely from those two obstacles. As for cats, while they do well enough bounding from chair to chair, they tend to view the bars on agility jumps as objects to push or crawl under. When it comes to tunnels, our cats love our small tunnel they view our bigger one mostly as a place to hide. Due to the aptitude of cats for climbing, their preferred obstacles are instead the A-Frame and dog walk.
Experts say that cats are easily bored, and their training sessions should be short. While this is a good general principle to follow, it’ll depend on your cat’s personality. The recommended five-minute guideline works well with our Cinder, who tends to get frustrated beyond that time. But our Rainy just seems to be warming up at five minutes, and can easily double or triple that time. A better guideline is to be prepared to keep training sessions short, but don’t be afraid to tailor them to your cat’s personality.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t provided any instructions for teaching specific skills. That information will be available in other articles. My main goal here has been to expose you to the idea that cats can be trained, the benefits to training them, and the different kinds of skills that can be taught.
I’d like to leave with you one final example of the benefits of cat training. Our youngest cat almost died last Fourth of July because we weren’t aware of her fear of loud noises. Since that time, there have been two other incidents related to this fear, one involved washing machines and the other involved staple guns being used on a roof. Now that we’re aware of Rainy’s fear, we can train her to be more comfortable around loud noises. I’ve come a long way in my attitude towards training. At first it was just a way to bond and have fun with my cats. Now I see it as a tool for improving their lives in every way possible. Such training takes time and effort, but I believe this is a gift well-worth giving to our cats.
PS Starting with the Spring Issue, please follow my articles on pet training at Lincoln Kids.