Image: Cat
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
A kitten kindergarten class at the Houston SPCA in Houston teaches felines how to work — or at least learn tricks — for their food.
updated 12/8/2009 5:50:26 PM ET 2009-12-08T22:50:26

People have low expectations of cats.

Sam Connelly tells of the time that she and her cat Storm observed a Canine Good Citizen test while they were waiting for their feline agility class to start.

“I’m watching the dogs and I commented to the evaluator, ’My cat can do all that,”’ said Connelly. “At the end she said, ’Want to take a shot?’ like it was a big joke.”

To the evaluator’s surprise, Storm passed the test, successfully performing commands like sit, stay, come, down, and walking on a leash.

Storm is a cat who does some of these things for a living. He helps Connelly train lost pet search dogs in Maryland by hiding and waiting to be found.

But training cats isn’t just for professionals — human or feline. The Michigan Humane Society has a Pawsitive Start program that uses volunteers to train cats in their shelter in useful and fun behaviors like the high-five and walking into a carrier.

“A lot of people look kind of funny at us when we say we train the shelter cats,” says CJ Bentley of the humane society. Cats need more than just playtime outside the cage to be well-adjusted in the shelter environment, she says.

Problem-solving power
“It’s not just all about the physical, it’s the mental as well,” says Bentley. “To teach them to be able to solve problems on their own can reduce the stress. It gives them control over a situation.”

It’s not just shelter cats that need more, though. People expect pet cats to “just hang out, which isn’t realistic,” says Melissa Chan, behavior specialist at the Houston SPCA. Cats are naturally active animals, she says, and “one thing I wish I could tell every cat owner: Cats want to work for their food.”

Having your cat touch your hand with its nose on command is one of the easiest behaviors to train, Chan says. If you hold out your hand, most cats will naturally sniff it. Reward with a treat until the cat is doing it every time you present your hand. Then, start repeating a word like “touch” every time.

Is ‘people food’ ever OK? 7 pet myths debunkedThis trick can then be used to get the cat to move where you want it by placing your hand in the desired spot. “You can use it to ask them to get off the couch, or teach them to jump through a hoop by putting the hand on the other side of the hoop,” Chan says.

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Another useful behavior is entering the cat carrier on their own. Sandy Lagreca, a volunteer at the Michigan Humane Society, says that this is great for both cats and people: “They go in without having to be picked up and shoved into the crate, which can be traumatic for the owner.”

Patience, repetition and a treat
All this requires is patience, repetition and a highly desired treat. Throw the treat into the crate (and if your cat is already suspicious of the carrier, step away). Let the cat go in, eat the treat, and leave, repeating until it’s completely comfortable going into the carrier. Then, start to close the door and leave the cat inside for increasingly longer intervals. Again, repeat till the cat is comfortable before you try to pick up the carrier.

Chan says that people often don’t think cats are trainable because they lack a dog’s desire to please, “but we have things that cats want. That’s all that matters.” Figure out what your cat will work for — it may be a little tuna, a bit of canned food on the end of a chopstick, or maybe a toss of a toy mouse.

8 tips to control your pet allergiesConnelly says to keep training sessions short — she recommends no more than five minutes — and varied. “Teach something else when they get one thing right,” she says. “Cats get bored easily.”

In addition to the specific useful behaviors, Bentley says, training can help prevent problems by changing the terms of your relationship with your pet. “The animal learns, when I do this, you’re happy and I get a piece of food, I guess I should focus on making you happy,” she says. “Teaching our cats to successfully do what we like and get rewarded makes them more inclined to do what we like.”

And it’s also rewarding to see that your cat is capable of so much more than lying on the couch. Says Lagreca, “It’s fun to watch the progression and see the lights go on — when they make that connection it’s a magical moment.”

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