Train your cat? Is that even possible? Yes, it is possible to train pets other than dogs. Horses, chickens, and even goldfish can learn a variety of skills. If a tiger can be trained to hold still for a blood draw in a zoo, surely you can also teach your house cat a trick or two. But, training your cat is a little different from teaching your pooch new tricks. Learn how to train your cat using positive reinforcement techniques and your feline star will be showing off in no time.
Read on to learn how to train a cat.
How to train a cat
Throughout this post, we’ll dive deeper into training methods and what works best for teaching cats new skills. Here’s a summary of our full post:
- Find what rewards encourage cats most to cooperate.
- Learn the basics of clicker and lure-based training techniques.
- Avoid common mistakes like punishment, inconsistency, or too much training.
The basics of training your cat
When training any animal, positive reinforcement works best. Avoid harsh punishments or scolding, as these aversive techniques only damage your bond with your cat. If your cat is afraid of you, it’s highly unlikely she’ll want to interact with you during a training session.
Positive reinforcement uses a simple training theory: reward the behaviors you like and ignore the ones you don’t. Consider the benefits of positive reinforcement through an example of human-human interaction.
Think about how you would act if someone else was training you to perform a task. If you executed a step incorrectly, your trainer would slap you on the hand. Would you be more or less willing to try again? Obviously, you would be hesitant to tackle the task again, in case you made a mistake and were punished.
But if you were taught a better way instead when you took a misstep and were rewarded heavily for a correct procedure, you’d be more likely to try without fear of failure.
Animals respond much the same way when learning new concepts. Fear of failure resulting in punishment leads to a lack of trying. Conversely, if failures are ignored and achievements are strongly rewarded, your pet is much more likely to try. Rewards go a long way toward encouraging a cat to cooperate in a training session.
Treat each cat as an individual when discovering her favorite reward. For example, your cat may like one of the rewards from the following categories best:
- Meat-based baby food
- Training treats
- Deli meat
- Canned cat food
- Freeze-dried meat treats
- Feather wand
- Catnip mouse
- Crinkly stuffed animals
- Robotic, interactive animals
- Praise and petting
Once you’ve taught your cat a behavior, you will be able to reduce the value of her reward. Instead of using slivers of deli meat as a reward, you can simply offer praise and a rub on the cheek.
How to train your cat using lures
Lure-based training relies on the use of food or a toy as a motivator to shape your cat’s behavior. If your cat is highly food-motivated, try using canned food or tuna on a spoon to lure your cat into position. Perhaps your feline is more intrigued by a feather wand. You can tease your pet into performing the behavior you want with a flick of the wand.
Once your cat has followed her lure into the position you want, such as a sit or down, you can mark the correct behavior. Many people use either a clicker, which will be explained more in-depth further on, or a simple “yes” or “good” as a marker. Be sure to follow each marker with a reward, whether it’s a taste of the food lure, a treat, or a quick game with a favorite toy.
A few keys to remember when training using a lure include:
- Hold the lure in the right place to encourage the correct response. Avoid holding it too high or too low, which inhibits the proper position.
- Teach a hand signal or voice cue before fading out the lure.
- Once your cat has learned a signal or cue for a behavior, fade the lure by removing the treat or toy from your hand, prompting her to follow your hand.
- Lure-based training has the potential to make your cat less creative, less likely to think for herself, and more reliant on your guidance.
- Lure-based training can be more challenging to use when training complicated behaviors, such as turning off a light.
How to clicker train your cat
Clicker training marks the moment your cat performs a behavior you like with a click from a training clicker, a sound, or a word, followed by a reward. You can use a lure to influence her into position, but clicker training often encourages your pet to think for herself to determine how to score a reward.
Clicker training is useful for more complex behaviors, as it breaks the end behavior into several small steps. It is also beneficial for shy or fearful cats, since it doesn’t require the close presence of a human. Be careful with scaredy cats and clickers, though. The sound a clicker makes may be too harsh and loud for some fearful felines, so a simple ballpoint pen may make a handy clicker instead.
Keep in mind these pointers when clicker training your cat:
- First, “load” the clicker by simply clicking and rewarding your pet. Your cat will soon learn that the click means good things are coming.
- Every marker must be followed by a reward, or it loses its meaning.
- The clicker is only used to teach a new behavior. Once you’ve reliably paired a behavior with a cue, you can ditch the clicker.
How to train these fun feline tricks
What’s the point in training your cat if you can’t teach her a few fun tricks? While many people think you can’t train a cat to perform tricks like you can with a dog, you most certainly can teach your cat some neat moves. Here we’ve outlined the steps to take for two entertaining tricks.
How to train your cat to spin
Ready, set, spin! Teaching your cat to spin is a fun trick to enjoy, whether you have a whirling dervish of a kitten or a stately senior. Follow these steps to turn your cat into a twisting trickster:
- Use a lure (a treat) or a target (a spoon) to guide your cat into turning. As soon as she bends her neck toward the lure, click and offer a treat. If you forgo a clicker while training, mark the action you like with a “yes” or “good” before giving your cat a treat.
- Once she is following the lure with her head, move it to the side so she has to turn her body to reach it. If she backs up to follow the lure, take a step back and reward her for simple head turns again. This will help enforce that you want her to turn, not back up.
- After she understands that she needs to turn to follow the lure, guide her around in a circle. Start small with partial turns first, rewarding after a quarter-turn or half-turn.
- Slowly build up to luring your cat into a full turn before rewarding her for a job well done.
For helpful tips on teaching your cat to spin, check out this video from Cat School:
How to train your cat to fist bump
Cats are constantly batting at things with their paws, so why not train your feline to perform this trick on command? All you need is a small container and some high-value treats, along with your clicker if you use one while training.
Have the coolest cat on the block once you’ve trained her to fist bump by following these steps:
- Place a few treats in your small container, then set it in front of your cat. As soon as your cat attempts to scoop the treats out of the container with her paw, click or mark with a “yes” and give her a reward.
- Repeat Step 1 while holding the treat container in your hand. Reward your cat for trying to scoop out the treats in the cup, even though it has changed position.
- Once your cat is trying to get the treats from the container in your hand, cover it. Reward her for batting at your hand to get the treats out.
- Repeat without the food in the cup. Your cat should be patting your hand with her paw. If she’s not, back up a few steps and take it slower.
- Once your cat is reliably batting at your hand covering the cup, remove the cup and clench your hand into a fist for your cat to target. Reward her for pawing at your fist.
- Show off your cat’s new skill!
For help in video form on how to teach your cat to fist bump, Cat School has an excellent step-by-step guide:
What to avoid when training your cat
Cats are fiercely independent creatures and may not want to participate in a training session when it’s convenient for you. While this may be frustrating, never force your cat into a lesson if she is unwilling. If your cat is interested in interacting and approaches you on her own, that’s the perfect time to begin a session. Many cats will even learn to come running at the rustle of a treat bag or at the sound of the clicker.
If your cat glances at you and continues on her way with a disinterested flick of her tail, let her go and try again later. Keep each session fun and entertaining by avoiding these training mistakes:
- Punishment — Not a single creature responds well to punishment, cats in particular. While a spray bottle filled with water may make your cat leap down from your countertops and stop mid-scratch on your new leather sofa, it’s not a recommended method for training. Spraying your cat when she does something inappropriate does not help her learn the correct behavior; it only teaches her you’re a creature to be feared. Punishment harms the bond between you and your pet, rather than strengthening it with positive reinforcement.
- Inconsistency — Inconsistency makes it difficult for your cat to learn what’s expected of her. If you send off mixed signals, you’ll get mixed results from your kitty. When training, stick with the same cue word and hand gesture for that command. For example, if you’re teaching your cat to bump your fist, don’t try using “high five” to begin, then switch to “pound it”. Your cat will learn much more quickly if you remain consistent.
- Lack of reward — Who wants to work with no reward in sight? Certainly not cats! Learn what works best for enticing your cat into cooperating. Some cats respond best to fishy treats, while others prefer cheese or whipped cream. Other cats may not be food-motivated, but would rather engage in a game with a feather wand or catnip mouse as a reward instead. For others, a good head massage is reward enough. When you discover what your cat likes best, be sure to use her favorite reward for each appropriate behavior performed. Once your cat is reliably performing her trick or skill, you can slowly phase out the high-value reward doled out with every action.
- Failure to end on a positive note — If you and your cat storm off in a huff, disappointed with an inability to communicate, no one benefits from a training session. Sometimes you may hit a roadblock in your training lesson and your cat just can’t seem to grasp what you’d like her to do. Instead of quitting for the day, back up a step to end on a simpler action. Stopping the session on a positive note helps cement what your cat learned and keeps her eager for future training lessons.
- Too long of sessions — Cats have much shorter attention spans than dogs. They may be similar to the brief attention span of a hyped-up Lab puppy, but when your cat is focused, you can accomplish a lot. It’s difficult to force a cat into doing something she doesn’t want to do, so training is a challenge if your cat has lost interest. Stick with several two- to three-minute training sessions a day, ensuring that you stop before your cat loses her focus. End strong on a positive note, and you’ll have your cat begging for more.
By using the tips we shared to teach your feline friend some new tricks, avoiding pitfalls along the way, you’ll have a companion as skilled at showing off as your neighbor’s dog.
Let us know in the comments below: what is the neatest trick you’ve taught your cat?