Before we get started with this guide to training your cat, it is important to understand the difference between training dogs and cats.
Although both are mammals who learn through both punishment and reward, dogs and cats tend to have different orientations towards being directed by humans.
This may have a lot to do with the fact that domesticated dogs have co-evolved in complex partnership with humans for over 30,000 years, while domesticated cats have only been around for about 4,000 years. In addition, dogs tend to be more socially oriented with other dogs and people, retaining the pack oriented lifestyle of their wolf ancestors.
Thus, the drive to be given social rewards such as praise and acceptance for dogs may indeed be higher than it is in most cats, making training a bit easier for canines. Cats, as most of us already know, are not as anxious about what we think of them as dogs are.
Despite that general trend, cats that receive rewards based training often learn to love learning. Just like with dogs, their individual personalities can make a big difference when it comes to being “trick” oriented.
If you want to learn how to train cats, this guide will give you the basic principles you need to have fun while you teach your cat some new tricks.
What Kinds of Tricks Can You Train a Cat?
Cats are intelligent animals capable of a wide range of both natural and learned behaviors that can be successfully put on a cue (a.k.a. command). However, before you get started with fancy tricks, we recommend you teach the following basic commands which will give you an advantage for future training sessions.
Train your cat to come when called so that your cat comes to your at the beginning of your training sessions.
Train your cat to pay attention to you by teaching your cat to look at you during a training session.
Train your cat to follow a target (a ball on a long stick) so that you will be able to move her from one place to another during training as well as train complex tricks that involve covering some distance.
Once you have those basic behaviors reliably trained, you can start to expand to more exciting tricks, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Lay down
- Go to a mat
- High five
- Roll over
- Stand up
- Use the toilet (instead of a litter box)
To give you a little bit of inspiration, here are 10 great cat tricks to teach your feline:
Getting Started With Cat Training
Once you understand a few basic principles of rewards based training, you will be absolutely shocked at how easy it is to train your cat new behaviors. Below are the basics of cat training:
Find the Right Food Motivator (Reward)
Before you get started with training, do a little bit of experimenting to find some soft food that your cat goes crazy for which you can feed easily from a spoon. Examples might include canned cat food, tuna, or cooked ground chicken or turkey.
Although you can use specialty crunchy cat treats, most cats tend to get filled up fast on these types of rewards which shortens their attention spans.
Practice giving your cat some of his preferred reward off of a spoon a few times just to help him get comfortable.
Decide on Your “Marker”
Modern training methods have their roots in marine animal training methods developed in the 1970’s which paired the sound of a whistle with a fish reward, allowing the trainer to “mark” the exact behavior they wanted to reward from a distance.
Clicker training uses this technique with land mammals. The click noise is made at the exact moment your pet has achieved whatever criteria you have set for success, such as her rump hitting the ground for the sit trick. It is always followed by a food reward, even when the click is made by mistake.
You can use any other sound or word for your marker, rather than a clicker, as long as you only use it when training or when you plan to give a reward. However, a clicker is a very inexpensive piece of training equipment and most pro trainers use them. They offer a highly effective, clear sound that will carry even when working at a distance.
Pair the Marker and the Reward
Before you start trying to train any specific behaviors with your cat, start by just letting them learn that the sound of your marker is always paired with a reward.
The only thing you don’t want to do when “charging” the clicker in this way is to accidentally mark undesired behaviors such as biting or pawing at you.
Instead, a great idea is to start training your cat to pay attention to you by clicking (or using your marker sound) when your cat looks at you, followed by the reward.
Use Luring, Capturing, and Shaping to Purr-fect the Trick
There are lots of techniques to get your cat offering behaviors that you can turn into tricks by click/rewarding followed by putting them on a cue. Here are just a few that are commonly used by pro animal trainers:
This technique involves using the reward to entice your cat to move in a certain way, then mark/reward when they give the right behavior. For example, if training your cat to stand on their hind legs, keep the spoon with the reward above their head and lure them into a stand position (usually by starting with any movement of the front paws off the ground at first).
This technique involves catching your cat in the act of doing something cute that you want to put on a cue. The key with this technique is that you don’t really do anything to solicit the behavior at first, you are just looking to “capture” natural behaviors offered by your cat and turning them into tricks you can get on a cue.
Most animal tricks start out as an approximation of the eventual trick that you want to put on a cue. For example, you may want your cat to learn to sit on command and stay sitting until they are released. In the beginning, you will mark/reward sitting for even half a second, but over time, you will use shaping to “raise the bar” on the length of the sit, thus “shaping” your cat’s tricks by choosing only the best examples to mark and reward.
Place the Trick on a Cue
One of the biggest mistakes people new to training cats make is to start out with the cue (also known as the command) for the trick. Instead, pro trainers work without a cue (often using hand signals that naturally evolve in the training process) until the trick is more or less trained.
The reasoning for this is that you want your cat to learn the meaning of the cue...which they don't actually know until you have already trained the trick.
Once your cat is doing the trick you want, reliably from hand signals or even lures, you can start to add the cue by saying it before your hand gesture, then marking/rewarding success. Eventually, and with lots of practice, the verbal cue is all your cat will need to do the behavior.
Fading Food Rewards
A big misconception about training with food rewards is that you are going to be stuck using food to get every single behavior out of your cat. Instead, although food rewards need to be given often in the early stages of training a trick, you should actually start fading food rewards once your cat has the trick down pat.
You can fade rewards in several ways. One is to start rewarding only the best examples of the trick, choosing about 1 out of every 3 times to reward your cat at first. Another way to fade the use of rewards is to string several tricks together before rewarding (known to pro trainers as “chaining”).
In addition, you can also fade food rewards by replacing them with praise in the form of pets. However, we suggest using a different marker word when you move away from food rewards.
And, be careful with fading food rewards too quickly as cats are rather notorious for not really wanting to do tricks unless there is something concrete in it for them….and only when they are in the mood!