A New Way of Thinking About Training Cats

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Sometimes an idea can revolutionize one’s world. My background is that of a dog person. When I began to train our current three cats, I initially drew on my experiences with dog obedience and agility. Then I read The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. It inspired me to develop a whole new training mindset. I began to see training as being about more than teaching commands and tricks, engaging a cat’s mind and body, or even building a stronger bond. Those are all excellent outcomes, but training for me is now a matter of not taking my cats adaptability for granted; it’s a matter of parenting my cats to maximize their happiness indoors as part of my family.

I have an ongoing list of skills that I want to teach our cats and am tackling them one at a time. For example, perhaps because Cinder came from a shelter, she’s possessive of her food. By that I mean, she growls if anyone or thing goes near her food. One way I’ve tackled that problem is to give Cinder what she most needs: privacy when she eats. All three of our cats have separate dishes and eat in separate rooms. At the same time, I want to be able to place a dish in front of her and remove it without stressing her. I’d also like to be able to give treats to my cats without squabbles or stress. Cinder shouldn’t view treats and meals as a fight or flight situation. One way I’ve tried to tackle the problem is by teaching Cinder a couple basic obedience commands.” Cinder (and all our other pets) must sit before I give out food. I’ve also drawn on a command from the dog world called “Leave it.” In this scenario, I hold treats cupped in my hands and then order: “Leave it.” Cinder used to initially sniff and butt my hands. Only when she walked away or otherwise showed no interest do I let her have the treat. Although at times she needs reminders, Cinder has gotten much better at showing patience.

Perhaps because Bootsie is a former feral, she doesn’t like enclosed spaces. This posed a huge problem when it came to taking her to the vet. I would have to first lure her into our library and close the door and then I had to stress both of us by trying to scruff her to put her into a crate. The Trainable Cat contains an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of teaching a cat to accept a crate, and it’s one of the first training methods outlined in the book that I tried. Everything was about baby steps. First, my husband and I replaced our closed plastic crate with an open wire crate. Next, I placed treats next to the crate. My husband also bought a soft pet bed that fit perfectly in the new crate. These would encourage Bootsie to develop a positive attitude towards the crate. Over a span of days, I gradually moved her treats further into the crate until she had to completely enter the crate to reach them After that, I also began to serve her meals in the crate. The experiment was even more successful that I dreamed. Bootsie now feels so comfortable in the crate that she often sleeps in it or retreats to it when startled. But would her attitude towards the crate change the first time I had to shut her inside it to bring her to the vet? I realized that I needed to train her in advance to be comfortable with these things, and not wait until her first vet visit to expose her to captivity and transportation in the crate. For that reason, I’d often close her inside the crate and carry her to different places in the house.  I’d even take her out to the car in her crate. Of course I rewarded her with treats throughout this conditioning. And it worked! After we took her to the vet for the first time, her attitude towards her crate didn’t change. She continued to view it as a place of comfort and safety. I’m now using the same baby steps to teach Bootsie to get into and ride in a pet stroller. If one day you see me taking her for a ride around the neighborhood, you’ll know I succeeded!

I have no idea why Rainy doesn’t like loud noises, but her fear became a huge concern when we almost lost her this past July 4th when the sound of fireworks caused her to stop eating for three days. One way I’ve tackled the problem is to give Rainy what she most needs: soothing music to camouflage the fireworks and a pet-sized dosage of Benadryl to numb her anxiety. At the same time, I can’t predict when other noises might stress her. Case in point, this past fall I found Rainy hidden under the bed covers when our neighbor was having her roof re shingled. The problem was the nail gun used to secure the shingles. I can’t expect her to be okay with every loud noise, but I do want her to learn to ignore common sounds such as thunder, traffic, and the banging of the teeter totter when we do agility. Andy helped me tackle the latter. He taught Rainy the ‘bang game’, where the ‘up’ end of the teeter is held close to the ground and a treat is held over it so that Rainy has to step on the end of the teeter to get the treat. In other words, the pet is rewarded for making the teeter ‘bang’. Now Rainy barely flinches when the teeter hits the floor. But if Rainy is to be comfortable with loud noises when I’m not around to protect her, I need to generalize my training efforts. And so, I’ve been taking her to new places armed with treats. Those of you who follow my agility series know that we’ve been making progress!

Someone I know once condemned those who view their pets as “kids”. Her reason? She felt such pet owners are the most likely to spoil them and let them misbehave. For me, the experience has been the opposite. The more I’ve come to view my relationship to our cats as that of a “parent,” the more I’ve realized the depth of pet owners’ responsibility to our animals. They used to live out in the wild but we’ve turned them into our companions, and as such they now depend on us to show them how to live contentedly in our homes and with our families. For me, it’s been all joy to invest in them as I would “kids”; the bond that we’ve developed through our training times is priceless.

Agility Series

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22 thoughts on “A New Way of Thinking About Training Cats

  1. I totally agree with you about pet parents being more attentive, cautious, and caring. We are not “spoiling” them we are doing all we can to make them their very best. Parents of all types be that of human children or pets all do things their own way. For me I find those in my pet communities to be the most committed to their kids – furry or not. I think it is wonderful to train your cats just as we do dogs. It is totally possible!

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    1. I grew up with dogs and loved to take them for walks and talk with them. Although I never trained them, I did have a strong bond with them. Even so, I often wish now that I had also “parented” them. It adds a whole new level to the relationship. Thanks for your comments!

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    1. I’ve been reading about the history of cats and trying to figure out why we give more credit to our dogs than cats. We keep our dogs safe inside, take them with us on outings, and even bring them more often to the vet. One day I hope we reach this place with our cats. They deserve it!

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  2. I would never thought of consciously training a cat but I can see your excellent reasoning behind using it here. I can see how it helped Rainy, althohgh I guess her traianing is ongoing, it does sound as though you have had great success so far!

    The book sounds as though training can be hugely beneficial to cats and well worth a read.

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    1. I started training Cinder and Rainy simply out of respect for how smart they are. I wanted to provide them with more mental stimulation. I train Bootsie more of out of necessity. She is only going to open up to strangers and accept a trip to the vet, if I have prepared her. I think training them will be ongoing, even if just to reinforce, just as it is with our dog.

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  3. I need to be better with training my cats. Lexy is terrified of leaving the house, but if I trained her to e comfortable in her carrier it may not be so traumatic. I’d love to train them both to go out in a pet stroller.

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    1. If you decide to try training your cats, I’d love to hear an update! Even if the update includes failures, that’s okay too. My agility series on Rainy includes what didn’t work and what worked.

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  4. Wow I never would have though of the crate training idea. That’s genius for training for transporting to the vet. Clever. Yes. I absolutely know cats can be trained. Just takes patience and clever thinking like you are doing! Well done.

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    1. The Trainable Cat by Sarah Ellis really opened my eyes to how practical training for cats can be. The book was a godsend when it came to acclimating Bootsie to a carrier.

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  5. It’s interesting that you’re adapting training techniques for dogs to cats. I never thought of training a cat, which I’ve had many, until Rhette. I’ve noticed he’s pretty smart and enjoy giving him treats to see what he’ll learn to do. Sandra and Dolly

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    1. I started training my cats using dog training techniques before I realized that most cat trainers would say training should be different for the two species. The training can vary, but the foundation and basics to me are the same.

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  6. As a person who grew up in a time when most people thought cats were untrainable, I just accepted that as a fact. (I didn’t have cats.) It has been so interesting to see how the mindset has changed and I’ve enjoyed reading about all these cats who go adventures, do agility and other tricks.

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    1. I grew up without cats. When my first showed up on my doorstep, my husband (then boyfriend) was doing agility with his dog. I started doing agility with her for fun. We didn’t get too far, no doubt she was set in her ways as an older cat, but we were successful enough that I tried it with our current cats and then expanded training to include all sorts of other stuff.

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  7. I like the idea of using the wire crate vs. standard carrier. In reading this, it made sense to give it a shot with my cat Marty. I have the same issue of having to close the door, etc. to get him in the carrier, but he does go into a wire crate much more readily. I will definitely give this a shot! Have the book you referenced, but have not had a chance to read it yet. Thanks for sharing your experience, you’ve given me some great tools to try with Marty!

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    1. If you decide to try training Marty to use a wire crate, I’d love to hear an update! It does take time, and Marty may need a refresher after each vet visit, but it’s make a world of difference for our family.

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