Yes, You Can Train Your Cat

Cat behavior consultant Allison Hunter-Frederick tells us how to begin

Do you have a shy cat that needs to gain confidence? Or a high energy cat that could use some focus? Or even a bored cat that lacks stimulation? Training will address all those needs as well as provide you with a new way to bond with your cat.

There are many unique ways to use training to challenge your cat’s brain. A practical way is to train your cat in manners such as “Watch me,” “Sit,” “Stay,” or “Come.” If you prefer just to have fun, you can train your cat to do tricks such as “Kiss,” “High five,” “Roll over,” or “Twirl.” A more physical way for your cat to learn is to run an agility course with jumps, tunnels, weaves, and other obstacles.

WATCH ME

I’ll start with manners. Catch your cat’s attention with the “Watch Me” cue. (An alternative cue is “Look at Me.”) In addition to being a great way to kick off training, the cue can be crucial when you have visitors or need to distract your cat from the door or food.

To teach “Watch Me,” follow these steps:

  • Hold a treat in front of your cat’s nose, for the split second it takes for your cat to realize you have a treat.
  • Quickly bring the treat up between your eyes.
  • Your cat’s eyes should follow the treat.
  • Mark your cat’s behavior with a click.
  • Reinforce with a treat when your cat makes eye contact with you.
  • Repeat these steps with your other hand.
  • After 10 successful attempts, add the cue “Watch Me” just before your cat makes eye contact.
  • Repeat daily for a week.

(The clicking sound can be made with your tongue or with a commercial clicker. It marks the behavior you want in a precise way.)

While teaching “Watch Me,” try to avoid staring at your cat, as your stare might be interpreted as a threat. If needed, you might offer a slow blink, which is viewed by cats as a sign of friendliness. With a shy cat, you might direct your focus to your cat’s head or ear tips. You might also train a shy cat to watch your nose or chin.

Once your cat has mastered “Watch Me,” you can start to generalize. Give your cat the “Watch Me” cue, while you’re holding different body positions such as sitting, standing, or laying down. Then use the cue in different areas of your home and with distractions.

You can also start to wean your cat off treats. To do this, reduce the number of clicks and gradually replace treats with verbal praise, until eventually you only need to offer verbal praise.

TWIRL

Next, I’ll talk about tricks. Cats who will willingly follow your hand, a target, or a lure are the most likely to learn “Twirl” easily. (An alternative cue is “Spin.”) The fun part about teaching your cat “Twirl” is that you can also teach directions, such as “Right” and “Left.”

To teach “Twirl,” follow these steps:

  • Show your cat a treat.
  • Slowly move the treat in a clockwise direction from his nose towards his tail.
  • He should follow your hand.
  • As he brings his head around to touch the treat, click and treat.
  • Each time you repeat these steps, have your cat turn a little more to receive the treat, until he turns a complete circle.
  • Repeat daily for a week.

(The technique of using a treat or toy to guide an animal into the desired position or behavior is called Luring.)

Once your cat has mastered Twirl, practice using an auditory and then a visual cue. To use an auditory cue, say the word Twirl just before your cat starts to follow the treat. As part of weaning your cat off treats, you can use a hand motion without a treat.

After your cat is adept at twirling clockwise, have him Twirl counterclockwise. If he gets confused, stop, and return to doing just one direction.

JUMP

Finally, I’ll talk about agility. One of the easiest agility obstacles to set up in your home and to teach your cat “Jump.” (An alternative cue is “Over.”) When I first started teaching “Jump,” I used chairs. Cost: free! I taught my cat to “Jump” onto a chair and then from chair to chair. If you don’t want to teach your cats to jump on your furniture, you could instead teach your cat to jump over obstacles on the floor or a child’s hula hoop.

To teach “Jump,” follow these steps.

  • With the cat on the floor, show her a treat and lure her to a chair.
  • When she arrives at the chair, click and treat.
  • Next, place a treat on the edge of the chair.
  • When your cat reaches for the treat, click and treat.
  • Next, place a treat in the middle of the chair, so that your cat has to jump onto the chair for the treat.
  • As soon as your cat jumps on the chair, click and let her eat the treat.
  • Next, place a treat on the middle of a second chair, so that your cat has to jump onto the chair for the treat.
  • As soon as your cat jumps on the chair, click and let her eat the treat

(The technique of reinforcing small steps that build towards a desired position or behavior is called “Shaping.”)

If you use a hoop, you’ll need to modify the above steps. Hold the hoop vertically with its bottom edge on the floor so your cat just has to step through it. Then you can lure through your cat through the hoop. Alternatively, you can reward for a cat coming near the hoop, sniffing the hoop, and walking through the hoop. In both cases, you start with the If you use a hoop, you’ll need to modify the above steps. Hold the hoop vertically with its bottom edge on the floor so your cat just has to step through it. Then you can lure your cat through the hoop. Alternatively, you can reward your cat coming near the hoop, sniffing the hoop, and walking through the hoop. In both cases, you start with the hoop on the floor, and raise the hoop a little each time your cat goes through it, until the cat has to jump through it. You can also increase the challenge by adding jumps one at a time until you’ve created a jumping course. Eventually, when your cat knows how to maneuver other obstacles, you can create an entire agility course.

If you are interested in learning more ways to challenge your cat’s brain through training, let me know through email or in the comments, and I can follow-up with additional articles. Let the fun and bonding with your cat begin!


Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior consultant and trainer, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she helps help positively transform the lives of cats and their owners. She also creates an animal welfare village for pet lovers through educational articles, profiles, and tributes at her blog Lincoln Pet Culture. Her articles have been published in local and national publications.

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