This blog was co authored by Deva Content & Jennifer Sorensen
Jennifer’s friend just decided to adopt a puppy. When she went to meet the new dog, her friend lamented, “I just can’t decide which doggy kindergarten to send him to. Do you know of any of these?” and then splayed out three different brochures, all given to her by the adoption counselor.
That made us wonder, why didn’t we receive any information on “kitty-garten” when adopting our cats? The short answer, of course, is that there are very few people who make their living by training adult cats and kittens, and those who do are generally sought-after feline behaviorists, not the doggy daycare owner you meet at your local dog park.
The fact is, responsible pet owners are expected to train their dog, but the cat owner is given a hall pass on this duty, even though cats are intelligent companions capable of learning almost anything as long as you have the time and treats to teach them. So in the flavor of Back to School season, we have put together a few guidelines on how to best teach your cat a thing or two. And we’re not just telling you what works, we took some of our own favorite felines and put them to the test!
CAT TRAINING 101: Basic Tips and Tricks
Any age of cat can learn basic tricks, but if possible, it’s best to start training cats when they’re young. Kittens are very clever, have lots of energy, and haven’t yet committed to lounging on the couch all day like some cats we know. With the help of Garbanzo (our star student, and one of Found Animals’ fabulous foster kittens), we will show how easy it can be to train your kitten. Garbanzo worked on his trick for about 3 weeks before heading to Adopt & Shop to find a family, and made this video for show and tell.
Ready to teach your cat some basic tricks? Here’s how to start your feline schooling today:
1. Pick Your Trick
Believe it or not, cats can be trained to do many of the same tricks as their canine counterparts: sit, jump, shake hands, come when called, play dead, fetch – you name it. What to teach will depend on your time and the natural tendencies of your kitten. Encouraging existing behaviors is the fastest and easiest way to get results, so try picking something your cat already does: if she sometimes sits on her hind legs to examine a toy, try saying “sit” or “up” and rewarding her each time; if he likes to paw your arm, make it a high five and say “gimme five.” It may take time, but with enough repetition the cat will associate your words and gestures with the trick you chose. Garbanzo liked to jump and pounce, so we decided his trick would be to jump through a hoop.
2. Sweeten the Deal
Remember the gold stars you earned in grade school? Your kitty needs recognition too! Cats work harder with a little motivation, so before you start building training courses in your living room, make sure you know what rewards will inspire your pet to perform. For some, treats are the ultimate prize – for others, a good snuggle or verbal praise will do the trick. If you’re using treats, make sure to feed only a small amount at a time, and use low-calorie snacks like Lean Treats, if possible. It’s no use teaching a cat to hoop-jump when he can’t even fit through the hoop. If your kitty is hooked on treats, try petting him while he snacks to slowly wean him off the treat itself. As any adoptable cat can attest, a loving family is the best treat of all.
3. Start Small, Work Your Way Up
Don’t expect your kitten to instantly know what you want her to do. Unless your cat can read minds, you’ll need to communicate the desired trick a little at a time by rewarding each step toward the final goal. For the hoop trick, we started by placing the hoop on the ground and rewarding Garbanzo for going anywhere near it. Next, we would hold a treat on the far side of the hoop until he peeked his head through. Once he realized there might be a treat on the other side of the hoop, he began to independently walk through it (sniffing for treats), and we began to slowly raise the hoop higher and higher. As his confidence – and the hoop – went up, he started to run and hop to get his treats. Soon he’ll be jumping right through.
4. Personalize Your Lessons
Every cat or kitten is different, so be sure you’re in tune with your feline student. You may find that she would prefer a visual cue to a verbal one, or vice versa. There may even be things you’ll need to change in your training method – for example, when we first started training Garbanzo, we would hold his hoop in our hands…and our hands smelled like treats. Instead of walking through the hoop, he started following our hands and biting them. We definitely didn’t want him learning that trick! By adding a stand to the hoop and giving him a bit more space, we avoided teaching him a bad habit and helped him focus on the behavior we wanted to reward.
5. Be Patient!
Training cats is not a quick process – it can be like…well, herding cats. Patience is a mandatory prerequisite for Cat Tricks 101. Cats and kittens are very independent spirits, and may decide after one try that they’re done practicing for the day. Once the cat has lost interest, that’s pretty much it. You can’t force a kitten to focus when he wants to eat/drink/nap/wrestle/climb/poop. Since most training sessions will be relatively short, it is essential to give your kitty plenty of time to practice and make mistakes. Be mindful that your cat may ace a trick one day and flunk out the next. Over time, all the hard work and patience will pay off.
Next course in this series: “CAT TRAINING 102: The Cat Harness Is Your Friend”
The first course is complete. Now for the test: is your cat smart enough to post high C.A.T. (Cat Aptitude Test) scores? With these basic tips and tricks, you can take your honor roll kitty back to school.
Don’t forget to let us know how it goes & share your cat trick stories below in the comments section!