How to Train Your Cat to Do Incredible Things
Growing up, I was literally obsessed with animals. I spent endless hours nurturing any and all abandoned and feral cats who wandered near my home. Those cats taught me many invaluable life lessons, such as that trust is earned and bonds must be strengthened with food and fun.
As for cat training? My infatuation began when I was 7 years old before anyone had informed me cats were untrainable and couldn’t learn like dogs do. As far as the cats were concerned, my ignorance was their bliss. To those cats, I was simply their animated Pez dispenser and in return for my rewards, they responded to simple directions like coming when I called out “Come kitties,” whacking me with their paws when I said “High Five,” and rolling over when I said “Belly up!”
Today I still apply many of the lessons learned at the paws of this first pride as I virtually coach new kitten parents and worried cat lovers on how best to relate, rehabilitate, and raise their cats. I help people understand what came naturally to my innocent mind: Cats love people who relate to and have fun with them, and learning is a two-way street.
Your Cat Can Already Do Incredible Things
Want to have a super fun relationship with your cat? Discover what makes her unique—her preferences, natural behaviors, and the games she likes to play. Then choose a few behaviors that are in tune with her natural behaviors. For example, pawing at a ball could be dubbed “Roll the Ball.” Cat training works best if you let your cat set the course and remember these three rules:
- Set Aside 5-10 Minutes. Keep training lessons short and sweet and practice new routines once or twice a day. Schedule lessons before feeding times, which in my home are 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
- Reward Your Cat Frequently. Give your cat rewards they value, like food and fun. Only train them to do things that interest them, and remember, slow and steady wins the race. If you have a goal, break it up into small steps.
- Keep It Positive. Check your attitude and impatience at the door. Strong human emotions are scary to cats. Avoid direct stares, physical corrections, or frustrating repetitions that will cause your cat to flee in fear.
Cat Training Tools and Tips
Any cat behaviorist worth an ounce of catnip will tell you: Do not ask your cat to do anything that isn’t natural and comfortable for them. “Each cat is an individual,” says Katenna Jones, ACAAB and director of Jones Animal Behavior in Rhode Island. “Rather than focusing on ‘tricks,’ focus on what a particular cat might enjoy based on their motivation and physical limitations.”
After all, what is training? It’s simply associating words or hand signals to behavior, much like teaching someone your language. That being said, cats can enjoy training. Sally Foote, DVM of Foote & Friends in Illinois, says, “Games like high five, fetch, and clicker training can be fun for you and your cat to do to prevent boredom.”
4 Supplies You Need to Train a Cat
- Treats: Rewards should be small and soft so your cat can eat quickly without filling up. You could try using store-bought, freeze-dried treats, meat-based baby food, or homemade tuna-paste delivered on a tiny spoon.
- Treat Cups: Put treats in a cup, shake it, and reward your cat. Viola, you’ve got a treat cup! You can buy one online or make one out of any container you have lying around the house (a washed-out pill or gum container, Tupperware, an empty soda bottle, you name it).
- Target Wand: A target wand is used as a pointer to guide your cat into positions or locations. You can buy a target wand or make one out of a chopstick or the end of a utensil covered in cloth affixed with a rubber band.
- Sound Marker: Many cat trainers are fond of clicker training, as it helps cats identify the exact behavior you will reward through perfect timing and a noticeable sound. You don’t have to buy a clicker to use the clicker training method. A ballpoint pen or simply the click of your tongue is an equally effective sound marker when paired with a high-value treat.
9 Fabulous Tricks Your Cats Can Learn (If They Want To, LOL)
Initially, choose tricks your cat already does naturally. Something as simple as “Scratch the Post,” once rewarded, can be conditioned into a habit that will save your draperies and furnishings. Other natural behaviors include rolling onto her back, climbing into a bag or box, or jumping onto the counter. You can lure your cat into some of these behaviors with catnip, treats, and toys.
When your cat performs the behavior, click and reward them. Once they notice the connection between the behavior and the reward, cue the behavior with a word or signal. It’s as simple and fun as that!
Belly up is a behavior some cats will do naturally, while others prefer to keep their paws on the ground. Say “Belly Up” when you notice your cat rolling onto his side or back. Then click and reward him. Just don’t scratch your cat’s belly as a reward! “Cats prefer petting on their chin, head, and neck, not on their belly,” says certified cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson, CCBC and director of Fundamentally Feline in Georgia. Unlike dogs, cats often misinterpret heavy-handed strokes as predatory or just plain unpleasant.
Cats only come if they feel like it, so don’t be verklempt if your cat doesn’t race over every time you call them. They’re not robots, and they're not dogs. That said, if you pair “Come” with feeding, food, and fun, you’ll be more likely to get their attention when you need it.
One note: Only call your cat when she’s milling about, not when she’s sleeping. "Nap time is one time when you should leave your cat alone,” says Mikel Delgado, CAAB and co-owner of Feline Minds in California. “Just like we don't like our sleep to be disrupted, your cat prefers to be left alone while sleeping. Some cats may bite or scratch because they were startled; others may just be irritated by the interruption."
Agile cats often enjoy riding on their person’s shoulder or back. To teach your cat to jump on you, start cueing their natural inclinations to jump on countertops or cat trees with the word like “Alley-Oop!” Since cats enjoy jumping on to high places, this will be an easy sell. Next, lure your cat to your chest or shoulder with a high-value treat or toy. Reward the baby steps, first standing with just two paws, then three, then four. Don’t add the word cue until your cat is confident climbing on you. Once your cat eagerly jumps up, begin slowly moving about, gradually increasing the time and distance. Always let your cat down if he is startled or restless.
You can direct your cat to an ideal location with a simple phrase like “Over Here.” Condition your cat to approach the end of your target wand by clicking and rewarding each time she paws it or bumps it with her nose. Once your cat learns to target, teach her to follow the movement of the target wand. Gradually reward longer distances. Got that? Now, hold the target stick 1 to 3 feet in front of your cat’s nose and watch her reaction. Once she approaches it willingly, add the cue “Over Here.” Eventually, you can direct her using the word cue and the display of your target wand or the simple point of your finger.
Once your cat masters Over Here, there’s nothing holding you back. Using a Hula Hoop or short tunnel as a hoop, let your cat sniff it and step around it before using it in a lesson. Simplify the exercise by placing the hoop in a familiar area and placing treats in the middle of it. Gradually raise the height of the hoop, never lifting it above your cat’s comfort level.
Show your cat a high-value treat and then place it in the palm of your hand. Fold your fingers over it and position your hand just below your cat's nose. The second your cat bumps your hand with his nose or paws (his preference), click, then open your hand to reveal the reward. Once he understands the game, pair it to the word “Bump.”
As with any other routine, only do what comes naturally to your cat. For this trick, she balances on her back legs, resting her paws either on a post, your hand, or your leg. Lift the food morsel from her nose back behind her ears; as she follows the food and lifts her legs to rest on an upright surface, click and reward your cat. Gradually lengthen the time she’s able to balance and stay posed (no more than 5 seconds).
Pinch a treat in your fingers and hold it down an inch or so above your cat’s paw. If he leans in with his nose, take the treat away, then try bouncing your fingers subtly in front of him to encourage him to paw at it. You may also do this with a favorite toy. If he lifts his paw even slightly, click and reward. Gradually withhold the treat longer until he lifts his paw. Reward incrementally: slow and steady wins the race.
Some cats fetch naturally with a little encouragement, others wouldn’t retrieve an object for a room full of live mice. To inspire your cat’s retrieving instincts, use two similar, high-value toys. Start playing in a small room or hallway to keep your cat’s focus on you. Toss your cat one of the toys. As your cat races for the first toy, get the second toy ready. Praise their capture of the first toy and immediately start playing with the second object; if they return (with or without the first toy) toss the second object. Go back and forth for as many rounds as they’re comfortable. If they return and are reluctant to release the first toy, bait them with a treat. Begin to click and reward their cooperation, then insert words to identify behaviors like Fetch, Bring, and Drop.
What cats value more than anything is quality time spent enjoying your company. Even if you get the sense your cat is training you to give them more treats, stop looking at your computer, or make room for them on the couch, as long as the connection brings you both joy, does it matter who is training whom? As any cat lover knows, it’s the moments you share that matter most, whether your cat is whipping through obstacle courses or curled up on your lap.