How to Train a Cat to Do What You Want

Cats are fickle creatures.  They spend most of their time sleeping or begging for food.  They like warm spots.  Sometimes they hunt your feet, and they spend most of their time pretending to ignore you.  Today, I’m going to teach you how to train a cat to do what you want.  Anytime, anywhere, any behavior.

Cats aren’t all that different from dogs.  They find motivation in the same places: food and play.  You’re going to learn how to motivate your cat, how to explain what you want, and how to get her coming back for more.

How to Train a Cat To Do What You Want: Use Her Instincts

The most important bit of teaching any animal any task is finding a way to use their natural instincts to complete the task.

Think about it.  Would you ask your dog to climb a tree?  Of course not.  Dogs (typically) can’t climb trees.  They don’t use their claws.  So why would you start by expecting them to scale a tree?  You wouldn’t.

If you wanted a dog to go up in a tree, you might teach him to jump onto a table, then ask him to do that on a low, wide branch.  Then you might ask him to jump on smaller and smaller branches, until he’s climbed a tree.  But he wouldn’t climb the tree by scaling it like a cat or squirrel.

Use this principle to train your cat.  Don’t ask her to do “dog” behaviors.  Remember that every behavior you request should be a “cat” behavior.

Training a Cat:  Touch

Touching a specific thing helps immensely in training.  While dogs typically learn to touch with their nose, cats are more likely to learn to touch a target with their paws.  Cats use their paws as hands, so teaching her to touch with her nose and paw will help train her to perform specific tasks.

Touch is a great starter trick.  It allows you to direct your cat away from a problem area (like if you are working on scratching furniture) or to get her to go somewhere specific (like if she’s attacking your feet.)  It also allows you to direct your cat to stay engaged in a training session by only rewarding her for staying in the area.

Training a Cat: Jumping & Climbing

Cats use different techniques than dogs to climb and jump.  Make sure that in your training, you are giving her adequate space to take off and land safely.  If she falls, she might give up on a training session or trick.

Sometimes the training involves getting her to not jump or climb.  Training a cat to stay off the furniture, for example, requires inhibiting the jump instinct.  It’s important to provide an outlet for these basic instincts so that she can jump, climb, and scratch without getting in trouble.  A large cat tree allows her to exercise without destroying the furniture.

Training a Cat: Litter Training

If you have a cat, you know she prefers to do her business in dirt, gravel, or other bedding.  When you’re having potty problems, always start at the vet, but also remove anything that she could mistake for litter.  You can’t train her counter to her instincts, so don’t try.  Give her only acceptable options and restrict her access to spaces she shouldn’t be using.

How to Train a Cat to Do What You Want: Motivation

Many cat trainers face a huge challenge in motivating their cats.  They feel ignored, or that their cat won’t “work for them.”

That’s utter nonsense.  Cats work for the exact same rewards that dogs and humans work for: play, food, and praise.  Many trainers simply don’t learn how to use these rewards to motivate their cats, or understand the difference between a German Shepherd and a cat.

Using Food as Motivation

Most cats show high motivation for food.  So why is it so many trainers have difficulty training cats?

Easy.  Cats have very small stomachs.  The average cat treat is about half the size of a dog training treat, but cats weigh about 8 pounds and dogs weigh about 30 or more.  Once she’s full, she’s not going to work for more food and she’ll need to sleep off her full stomach.

More frequent, but shorter training sessions will offset this tiny stomach problem.  It’s not as convenient for the trainer, but you’ll get farther in her training.

Using Play as Motivation

Cats love play as motivation, but many trainers make the mistake of training the play portion.  For example, say your cat loves roughhousing.  You try to use roughhousing as motivation, but then she bites your hand and you correct her for biting.  That’s no fun.

Control your play sessions so that she doesn’t get in trouble for playing “her way.”  If your cat can’t roughhouse without biting, don’t use roughhousing as a reward for good behavior.  You can use chasing a laser pointer, or use a sock stuffed with other socks instead of your hand.

Using Praise as Motivation

Many cats will work for praise–if praise includes a scratch on the chin or behind the ear.  Cats love attention just as much as dogs, and will work just as hard for your praise.

However, they react differently, and this often leads the trainer to think the cat doesn’t care.  They will often sit and bask in your compliments, purring–but the only indication that they enjoy the attention is the expression on their face.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language.  Most of them love praise and will work hard for your praise.

Training Cats:  Some Tricks

You can use these methods to teach your cat many, many behaviors.  Cats can learn any trick you might teach a dog, like rolling over, playing dead, and sitting pretty.

They also can learn many jumping related tricks because of their agility and small size.  They can learn to leap from one table to another, or through a hoop.  They can reach under things with their paws, and love tricks involving ambush.

Have you taught your cat anything using these techniques?

Please share in the comments, or on the Petlosopher Facebook page.

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