At mealtime, Roxy rings a desk bell. Lucy and Ethel come running, and everybody gets fed. Roxy isn’t Lucy's and Ethel’s owner, although she probably thinks of the two dogs as her servants. Roxy is a Devon Rex cat, and on command she comes when called, runs through a tunnel, jumps over a child lying on the floor, gives a high five, and sits and stays, even when she hears treats being thrown down the hall.
Roxy’s not unique. With the right motivation, cats are highly trainable. You can even teach a cat to go for walks on leash, although you can expect that your cat will be choosing the route, not you.
“People tend to think that cats are not smart, and the reason is that they can’t force cats to do things the way they can dogs,” says veterinarian Sophia Yin, a behavior expert who lectures on domestic animal behavior at the University of California at Davis. “But if you train with rewards for correct behavior, then cats are easy to train.”
Why train a cat?
Roxy’s owner, animal-behavior consultant Steve Dale of Chicago, who recently spoke on enriching the lives of cats at the annual World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress in Sydney, Australia, says training exercises a cat’s brain and body and strengthens the bond between cat and human.
It’s also a way to communicate with your cat.
“There are powerful benefits to training in any situation, and its major benefit is that you’re developing an interspecies communication system,” says animal behaviorist Mary Lee Nitschke, a professor of psychology at Linfield College in Portland, Ore. “I don’t know many instances in which a relationship doesn’t benefit from better communication.”
If you’ve ever been to Key West’s Mallory Square at sunset, you’ve probably seen Dominique LeFort’s trained cats jumping through hoops of fire. Sure, that’s showy, but you can teach your cat more useful tricks that don’t run the risk of burning the house down.
Yin likes to start by having people teach their cats to sit, especially if they’re having problems with their cat chasing them and attacking their legs. When you teach your cat to sit for attention, petting or treats (packaged kitty treats or tiny bites of food such as chicken or cheese), it distracts the cat from raking its claws across your legs, she says. Sit is also the foundation for teaching stay, standing up on the hind legs, and waving a paw.
“The other thing I like to train is to touch a target with the nose,” Yin says. “The target for a cat is usually something like a pencil with a big eraser on the end. I start by putting a little bit of food on the end and presenting it just far enough from the cat so it has to stretch its neck to examine the food. Then when it touches it, I remove it and give a reward immediately, so they learn that touching it with the nose gets a reward. What I want, and what you can usually get within several days, is for the cat to run several feet to touch the target with its nose. Once you have that, you can train all kinds of tricks because now you can control where their head goes.”
What’s useful about that?
Well, say you keep the litter box scrupulously clean, but your cat doesn’t like its location. Once you’ve taught him to touch a target, you can hold the target over the litter box, reward him when he goes in, target him out, target him back in and reward him again, and so on. He may very well decide that the litter box location isn’t so bad after all. Or you can teach him to spin around in a circle, which is just plain fun.
Teach your cat to come when called by associating a particular sound with mealtime or a treat. Anything will work, whether it’s the desk bell Roxy uses to call “her” dogs, a clicker or the sound of the electric can opener. My husband taught our late cats to come when he whistled a particular tune.
Besides ensuring that you can always find your cat when it’s urgent, the come command can be used to exercise your cat and entertain your kids for a few minutes. Have each child stand in a different room, Dale says. The first child calls the cat. When the cat comes running, it gets rewarded. Then the second child calls and the cat runs to the next room and again gets rewarded. The kids can move to different rooms as the game continues.
Now, dogs would play this game for hours. Cats don’t have that kind of endurance, but it’s a great way to exercise them for a few minutes as well as to reinforce the come command.
Forget doggie styleIf you’re used to training dogs, forget everything you know. There are differences in teaching cats.
“Dogs will work for free. They’re happy to please you,” Dale says. “Cats aren’t going to volunteer their time forever for nothing. They want to be paid, and they’re a bit less forgiving ... It has to be training where you’re being upbeat and the cat’s having a good time and being paid for it in the form of bite-size treats that are easy to swallow.”
Keep kitty training sessions short and sweet. Your cat’s attention span probably has a range of two to 10 minutes. Always end training when the cat has done something right.
“If you think the cat’s beginning to lose interest, you probably went 10 seconds too far,” Dale says. The adage “Quit when you’re ahead” comes to mind.
And yes, in case you were wondering, you can teach an old cat new tricks.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.