Can Cats Be Trained?

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.

cinder_kissWell, 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.

lucy_outdoorsOver 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.

cattrio_leaveitOther 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.

bootsie_crateThe 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.

Teach A Cat to Jump and to Twirl

So far my posts this week have focused on obedience commands. Now I’d like to introduce two tricks. Everything I’ve covered to date comes from Cat Training in Ten Minutes by Miriam Fields-Babineau, a book that has offers a lot of information about having fun with your feline, including how to take cats for walks.

Teaching a Cat to TWIRL

Teaching a cat to TWIRL has been a mixed experience for me. I have had about a 50% success rate with two of my cats. If it works, however, the trick can be great fun. Cats can learn to twirl both left and right, multiple times, or even weave under your legs. 

  • Have your cat SIT.
  • Show him a treat and bring the treat from his nose to his tail.
  • Tell your cat to TWIRL.
  • As he brings his head around to touch the treat, praise and treat.
  • Each time you repeat these steps, have your cat turn a little more until he turns a complete circle.
  • After your cat is adept at twirling one circle, have him TWIRL a second.
  • If he gets confused, stop and return to just one circle.
  • Once your cat can master two circles, add more circles, each time increasing the number to be completed before giving a treat.

Lucy struggled with this trick. I don’t know why. Did I simply not understand how to teach it? Or did she not grasp the concept of turning, turning, and turning until a circle has been complete. At any rate, TWIRL was always hit and miss with her. On the days she got it, I praised and treated her as if she had taken her first baby steps. What an exciting accomplishment to learn a trick.

CatTwirlIn contrast, Cinder found this trick as easy to perform as our dog did. The first time I brought the treat from her nose to her tail, she turned a complete circle. Within the week, she could twirl left and right and multiple times. So we immediately progressed onto other challenges.

After a dubious start with SIT, I decided to try something that seemed to come more naturally for Bootsie. The moment I walk into our library to visit Bootsie, she turns this way and that for attention. By adding a treat to her routine behavior, I was able to quickly teach her to TWIRL.

In all of these commands that I’ve covered, you should make your own judgment call about which one to start with and which ones to delay. Some need to come before others. SIT should come before both SIT UP and STAY. Otherwise, start with the one most guaranteed to bring success to make both you and your cat proud.

Teaching a Cat to JUMP

CinderJumpTeaching a cat to JUMP has been one of my favorite experiences, with a 100% success rate for two of my cats. (I haven’t tried this command yet with Bootsie.) No doubt this is because jumping comes naturally to our felines. As with TWIRL, variety can be added. Once a cat obeys the command to JUMP, you can have the cat jump from chair to chair or through a hoop. It might even be how you teach your cat to JUMP into your lap!

  • With the cat on the floor, show her a treat and guide her to a chair.
  • When she arrives at the chair, praise and reward with a treat.
  • Next time, move the treat halfway up the chair and praise your cat as she reaches for the treat.
  • Gradually, increase the distance until she touches the seat of the chair.
  • Place the treat in the middle of the chair, touch it, and say JUMP.
  • As soon as your cat jumps on the chair, praise her and let her eat the treat.
  • The next time you ask your cat to jump on the chair, simply touch the treat to the chair and ask her to JUMP.

Cat obedience isn’t a science. This means we can all learn from each other. What stories do you have about teaching your cat? What web sites and/or books have you used? Please share and help our pet community grow in its knowledge!

Teach a Cat to Up and to Stay

In my initial post I wrote last fall about obedience training cats, I gave several reasons why cats need this. For example, training exercises your cat’s mind and keeps it stimulated. Training also strengthens the bond between you and your cat. The two commands I’ll cover in this post are extensions are ones I covered in How to Teach a Cat to Sit and to Come..

Have you ever gotten your cat to successfully comply one day, only to have your cat ignore you the next day? One of suggestions given by in Cat Training in Ten Minutes by Miriam Fields-Babineau is to vary the training routine. For example, after your cat learns to SIT in front of you, teach her to UP, which some of you might also refer to as BEG. 🙂

Teaching a Cat to UP

  • Get your cat’s attention by having her SIT.
  • After a couple of successful attempts, point upward and over her nose with the treat, and give the command: SIT.
  • When your cat looks up, praise her and award her with the treat.
  • The next time, look for the weight shift. Repeat the command, UP, while holding the treat over her head. When your cat sits up and lifts her front feet off the floor, praise her and award her with the treat.
  • Gradually, increase the distance she needs to lift her feet off the floor, until she leans against a solid object such as a chair.

CinderUpUP proved as an easy command for my cats as SIT. Both Lucy and Cinder learned it fairly easy as an extension of the SIT command. Lucy used to raise herself, sniff my hands, and wait for me to reward her. In contrast, Cinder is a little less polite. Oh, she’ll raise herself, but then she butts my hands for the treat. She’s an impatient and eager girl, when it comes to food! I have yet to try this command with Bootsie, but I know that sitting up the floor comes natural to her when she’s both curious and confident about an object.

Teaching a Cat to STAY

  • Get your cat to COME and to SIT.
  • Tell him to STAY.
  • Hold your hand in front of your cat’s face, palm facing him. Praise him the entire time he stays. This will encourage him to stay in anticipation of receiving a treat.
  • Reward after he stays in place for a few seconds.
  • Lessen the time if needed; training is easiest when you can reward success rather than punish failure. Actually, you don’t want to punish at all, because then you would be teaching your cat that training is a bad thing.
  • Once successful, repeat the process, and gradually increase the amount of time you ask your cat to STAY.

Something else to keep in mind about training sessions, which should be kept short and repeated often, is that whether your cat is young or old training takes a lot of time and patience. When I first began training Lucy to STAY, she would break her SIT position to wander about and sniff the area. I had to keep ordering her back into a SIT position.

CindersStayEven Cinder struggled with the STAY command. Initially, she would wiggle her butt, then turn in a circle, and sometimes even break rank. But I remained consistent in my command. I also ramped up my efforts by offering cheese. Over time, Cinder learned that to she earned treats only by heeding my command to STAY. Now Cinder has almost mastered the skill. Good girl!

As for Bootsie, I have only informally tried STAY with her. Whenever I get ready to leave the library and need her to not follow me, I’ll tell her STAY. Well-mannered as she is, Bootsie will just sit and watch me close the door. Will Bootsie so readily listen, once she begins to view our entire home as her domain? I have no idea, but at least the foundation is in place.

Each cat is different. Some are motivated by food, by toys, or even simply by praise. Some aren’t motivated by anything. If your cat doesn’t want what you’re offering, you won’t get far. Training requires that your cat gets something positive out of obedience.

Teach a Cat to Sit and to Come

My first post for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors met with some skepticism. I wrote about obedience training cats–something that not everyone feels is possible. At the time, I shared reasons to train and gave tips. This week, as part of introducing my cats to you, I’d like to follow up with some short articles about specific commands you can give your cat to learn obedience and perform tricks.

Teaching a Cat to SIT

SIT is perhaps the easiest command to teach. To date, I’ve tried the command with three cats with almost perfect success.

  • Sit or kneel in front of your cat.
  • When you have your cat’s attention, slowly lift a treat above his head so he has to crane his neck to see the treat. Tell him SIT.
  • As your cat’s head lifts up and back, his rear should lower.
  • Move the treat in towards your cat’s rear. Be sure not to hold the treat too high or he will try to jump to reach it instead of staying on all four paws. His nose should almost touch the treat.
  • As soon as your cat puts his rear on the floor, praise him and reward him the treat.

Lucy came to us as a stray. As such, she was more set in her ways and not overly motivated by food. I had to repeat the SIT command a few times. I also had to push Lucy’s rear to the ground a few times for her to figure out what I wanted. Once she got the idea, Lucy could sit when I asked. Not that she always choose to!

Cinder SitCinder came to us as a shelter cat, young and constantly hungry. During my earliest attempts to train her, she was so eager for food that she would wrap her paws around my hands trying to pry loose the measly crumble that I called a treat. When I finally pulled out my no-nonsense strict tone, down went her rear! Out came a treat! Cinder and I learned together. Now I can order SIT and Cinder will immediately do what she’s asked.

Bootsie came to us as a friendly feral cat, strongly motivated by attention. During my attempts to train her, Bootsie has been so anxious to get petted that she often ignores the food in my hand. When I once tried to gently push her rear to the ground, Bootsie did sit. I rewarded her with a treat, and she promptly batted me to show her displeasure with my methods. But she now knows how to sit!

Teaching a Cat to COME

COME is a more advanced command. To date, I’ve tried the command with three cats, and experienced inconsistent results. Yet because being able to recall my cats could one day make the difference between life and death for them, I’m keeping COME as part of our training routine. 

  • Choose a unique command. Don’t use COME if that’s what you yell when your cat runs off with your hot dog. Instead the command might be HERE.
  • Sit next to or near your cat.
  • When she becomes attentive to the treat, praise her.
  • Hold out the treat and give your recall command. As soon as your cat comes to you, immediately reward her. She’ll soon learn to pair the recall command with the action of moving towards the treat.
  • When your cat moves towards the treat and touches her nose to it, reward her.
  • Now move back a foot and present the treat again, first under her nose and then by drawing her closer to you by also drawing the treat closer to you.
  • As your cat moves toward the treat, praise her. When she actually touches the treat, reward her.

Like many cats, Lucy liked to hide on top of shelves, under beds, and in dark spaces. That wouldn’t have been an issue if I could have gotten her to consistently adhere to my recall command. Instead, Andy and I had to listen for the jangle of the bell on her collar—which was only of use when Lucy was moving. Fortunately, Lucy never resisted being picked up. As long as we could find her, keeping Lucy safe was an easy task.

Just like Lucy, our darling tortoiseshell, Cinder, seems to view the inside of our recliner and the recesses of our basement as adventure lands. When she isn’t tossing toy mice into the air or sleeping up a storm, Cinder likes to tuck herself away like Houdini. Just like Lucy once did. Except with one difference. The second I combine the rattle of a treat bag with the holler of COME, Cinder flashes to me like a lightning bolt. Her love of food is an asset when it comes to training.

The key to remember here is that whatever gets your cat to respond to your recall command, you must follow up with a reward. Also, never use the recall command for something negative. For example, if you use your recall command when you want to trim your cat’s nails or give her a bath, you’ll actually be training her not to come when called.

As for Bootsie, calling to her used to work when I visited her feral colony. Obviously she had learned to associate the sound of a human voice with food. Now that she’s inside our home, I’d love to say COME and see her to venture beyond the library that she views as her safe place. For now though it’s enough that she’s responding to the basics, and is learning to trust my husband and me. A good relationship is the foundation to training of any pet, including our more independent ones like cats.