As an equal opportunity pet fanatic, dare I say cats are just as fun to train as dogs? Your cat will welcome learning basic directions, and most kittens take well to leash training too if you pair the lessons with food and fun. “Many cats love training if done properly, with patience and rewards,” says behaviorist Katenna Jones, ACAAB and director of Jones Animal Behavior in Rhode Island. Like with any other relationship, you get out what you put in!
While cats can’t be trained to do the array of tasks dogs are bred for, basic training comes naturally to them. Cats will instinctively use a litter box, and common dog behavior problems like play biting, separation anxiety, and aggression are easy to avoid.
Often, training a cat not to do something, like training them not to bite or pull on a leash, simply comes down to not provoking that behavior in the first place. If you’re leash training, opt for a harness instead of a training collar, which can lead to frantic oppositional reflex and might choke your cat. If your cat bites, teach her what to do instead by redirecting her predatory instincts to a feathery toy.
The benefits of cat training are vast. “Training provides mental and physical stimulation as well as positive social contact,” Jones says. “Just the act of training in and of itself is incredibly valuable for frustrated, bored, shy, and fearful cats.”
Before you start your cat training endeavor, walk a minute in her paws. Unlike dogs who relate to their family like toddler-aged children, according to behaviorist Stanley Coren, PhD, DSc, FRSC, cats are more like teenagers. While dogs will cooperate for a few kind words, cats are motivated on a pay-to-play basis. Dismissive of our gushy excitement, cats will participate in training games only if the rewards are worthwhile.
Cat training is a great way to connect with your cat and teach them the meaning of a few key words. “The important thing is to let your cat have the final say in what you teach them; not all cats like to do all things,” says Ingrid Johnson, CCBC and director of Fundamentally Feline in Georgia. “Choose behaviors that already come naturally to your cat before setting out to put the behavior on cue.
“Keep it positive,” she adds. “Clicker training is a very effective way to pinpoint the moments your cat does the behavior you focused on.”
Training, in a nutshell, is just assigning words to natural behaviors and rewarding your cat for cooperating. Here are seven words and actions to teach your cat:
Encourage your cats to see hands as always rewarding. To discourage biting, dab your knuckles or the back of your hand with a little homemade or store-bought treat paste. Say “gentle” as your cat or kitten licks your hand, pulling your hand away calmly if she begins to nip or bite.
2. Find It
Toss high-value treats at your cat’s paws, and once your cat can follow the toss, add the phrase “Find It.” Yes, it’s that simple. You can then play the shell game with Tupperware containers or even your hands. Say “gentle” if she claws or bites your hand, using a dab of cat paste to encourage licking. Reveal the treat after she licks or taps your hand gently with her paw.
You can use a man-made or store-bought target wand or even the point of your finger. Teach your cat to be alert to the target by presenting it 2 inches in front of your cat’s nose. The moment she touches it, click and reward her. Once your cat reliably moves to the target, say the word “target” to put this behavior on cue.
Whenever your cat sits naturally, click and give her a reward. Soon you’ll notice your cat sitting to cue you when you bring the treats out. Add the word “sit” once you can predict her behavior. Then, try luring her into position with a target wand or pointing signal. Click and reward this pose. Gradually phase off clicking every correct response, using the clicker and treats intermittently.
5. On Your Mat & Stay
Create a cat-mat by laying a flat mat, towel, or cloth napkin on the counter, sofa, or tabletop. Curiosity might not kill your cat, but it will get the better of her! When she steps on the cat-mat, click. Then toss a treat slightly away from the mat, so your cat has to come back for the next round. Gradually introduce using the cue “on your mat.” Once your cat goes to her mat willingly and remains there, introduce the “stay” cue. Use the cat-mat to encourage your cat to stay in a location such as her cat tree while you eat or cook. You can also bring your cat-mat on vacation or to the veterinarian to console your cat during check-ups.
Cats can learn to come from the minute they enter your home. Pair positive experiences and the shake of a treat cup with the word “come.” To do this, put treats in a cup or container and shake and reward until your cat recognizes the sound. Click and reward your cat when she arrives. Slowly increase the timing between saying “come” and shaking the treats until she comes on cue. Gradually phase out the clicker and reward her intermittently.
7. In the Box (or Cat Carrier)
Most cats will happily jump in a box or explore a bag. Having a direction for this behavior is useful when the time comes to pull out the cat carrier. In fact, pull out the cat carrier long before you ever need it, hiding treats and even feeding your cat or kitten portions of her meal in it. When your cat jumps into the carrier or a box, click and reward the behavior. When your cat prompts you, add the cue “in the box.” Gradually add carrying her about in her box/carrier, rewarding her after each ride.
Lessons often require intense focus, so keep them short and upbeat. End each one with a bout of predatory fun using a feather flyer or a stuffed toy, letting your cat carry it away in victory.
Cat Training Don’ts
Cats don’t respond to or learn from discipline. Swatting, spraying, or startling techniques may stop your cat from doing a certain behavior around you, but they won’t stop the behavior overall. Your very presence will be a buzzkill, creating a suspicious cat who is wary of your togetherness.
“The behaviors we see, especially the ones we don’t like, are how cats communicate,” Jones says. “Any method that is punitive or designed to decrease a behavior simply shuts down communication. Instead, focus training on what you do want, rather than what you do not want.”