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How to Train Your Cat

Based on an article that first appeared at

January is National Train Your Dog Month, and that seems only natural. After all, most people think about how they’ll train their dog, and they work hard to make sure their best canine friend is well trained. But there are more cats as pets in the U.S. than dogs, and many homes have multiple cats. Why is there no “National Train Your Cat Month?” Is it because we think of cats as aloof and independent – too much so to be trainable? … Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean that perception is a reflection of reality! Cats, despite popular opinion, can absolutely be trained. In fact, house cats are trained to do at least one thing very well: use the litter box. It doesn’t have to stop there, though. Cat on a harness and leash.

Exhibit A. Cats really can be trained to do things – like walk on a harness and leash. The Dude demonstrates!

What if you could train your cat to do other things? Last year we talked about how to train your cat to walk on a harness and leash. That worked, too (see exhibit A, The Dude, pictured here)! Of course, just like not every dog can (or will) learn everything you might wish, not every cat will, either. Persistence pays off, though, and the training can help you and your cat bond. The key to successful kitty training is understanding how your cat behaves and what motivates him.

First thing’s first. Unlike dogs, cats don’t care if they please us or if they work with us. Rather, they want to please themselves, and that usually means satisfying their stomachs. Therefore, it’s our job to figure out what they like best and use those treats and rewards to train them. Does your kitty like crunchy treats best? Soft treats? Canned tuna (low sodium, of course)? Something else (maybe a box!)? It may take some trial and error to discover what best motivates your meowing friend, but once you’ve got it, you can use those treats as rewards for a job well done! This plan works best if you schedule the training sessions right before mealtime so Kitty is hungry and willing to work for his dinner!

Second, just like with dogs, cats should only be trained using positive reinforcement. Negative punishment only serves to make your cat afraid of you or a particular thing (sometimes the thing you want to encourage him to do or use!). Additionally, punishment creates stress, and that can lead to unwanted behaviors that didn’t exist before. When Kitty is taught that good (yummy!) things happen when he does the things you want, he’s much more likely to do the good behaviors.

It’s also important to remember that cats have short attention spans. This fact translates into two things to remember and put into practice: 1) Kitty needs to be rewarded while he’s doing the desired behavior or immediately after (within seconds), and 2) Kitty isn’t going to sit around for training sessions that last more than 10 or 15 minutes each. While training sessions should be short, there should be LOTS of them, repeated many days in a row so Kitty doesn’t forget what he’s learned.

Finally, what do you do to get Kitty to perform without always being rewarded with treats? After all, the goal is to teach him to do new things without always having to be rewarded with food. This is where making sure you get your timing right is especially important. Once Kitty has learned that good things come to him when he does what you want, he’ll be more willing to do it simply for head scratches or verbal praise (and the occasional treat). Because of this, it might be useful to consider using a clicker when training your cat. (Yes, the same clicker you use with your dog’s training.) When the clicker and the treat are positively associated, Kitty will eventually come to think of the “click” as a reward in itself.

An image from the Acro-cats show.

See? Acro-cats! (Some) Cats really can be trained to do tricks.

So now you know the basics for how to go train your cat. What will you decide to try? The sky’s the limit – your cat can be trained to do many of the things your dog can do. Of course, most people are happy to train their cats to use the litter box, scratch only the scratching posts and stay off the counters. But maybe you want to teach your cat to come when you call him or go willingly into the carrier – or even sit, roll over, give you a high-five, jump through a hoop or use a toilet instead of a litter box (and maybe even flush it)! It could happen. After all, the Acro-Cats are a real thing. If cats can be trained to do circus-like performances, why can’t you train your cat to do just about any reasonable – or unreasonable – thing you wish?

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