I previously wrote an article on the benefits of using positive reinforcement to encourage your cat to exhibit “good” behaviors. I’d like to take the application of positive reinforcement one step further and talk a little bit about how you can use it to actually train your cat to do all sorts of fun things. Yes, you CAN train your cat! In addition to teaching your cat that you want her to use the scratching post, you can also teach your cat to recognize verbal and visual commands to sit, give high-fives, come, and even go into her crate…and many other things. Training your cats is a great way to give your cats both mental and physical stimulation, which they need. It prevents boredom, strengthens the bond between cat and guardian, and it’s also fun! There’s no limit to what you and your cat can do together with a little training.
It’s easiest to train your kitty if she likes treats. It’s even better if she likes treats A LOT! That doesn’t mean, however, that even if your cat isn’t too food-motivated, she can’t be trained. Affection, sweet-talk, and play can also be used as a reward. You can give your cat a reward after she performs the desired behavior, or, you can teach her with a clicker. The clicker sound is made EXACTLY when the cat performs the desired behavior, and then she is given her reward (treat). She’ll soon learn to associate the click sound with the treat, and also recognize that when she hears the click, it means that she did something right. So, the click acts as a bridge between the action and the treat…the clicker allows you to precisely mark when your cat does the thing you want her to. And you’ll find that soon your cat will be doing things so that she can hear the click!
So how do you get your cat to do what you want her to do in the first place? Start off with something simple, like the command SIT. I trained my cat Abbey to sit in about five minutes using this technique:
- Start with a treat in your hand that your cat really likes. I usually hold the treat between my thumb, middle, and ring fingers, leaving my index finger as a pointer. When she sees that you have it, she’ll start to come to you.
- When she walks over to you, move the treat just over her head and a little bit behind her (so that it’s just a few inches above her, and you’re moving the treat in the direction of her rear. Say “SIT”, and make a pointing motion down, with your index finger (and the treat still in your hand) – she’ll eventually associate the word and visual cue of your finger pointing down with the sit action.
- She’ll follow the treat with her eyes, lifting up her head…and usually, as the head goes up, the butt will go down on the floor.
- As soon as her butt hits the floor, click the clicker (or say “good girl!”, or whatever), and then give her the treat.
- Repeat as necessary!
HERE is a good video for teaching the SIT command, step-by-step (she does it a little differently than I do, but you’ll get the gist!). Interestingly enough, after your cat learns how to do the command, it’s best if you don’t reward her every single time…the behavior will get “cemented” if you have her perform the trick occasionally without the treat reward. This will keep her guessing – will I get the treat this time? Let’s find out! It’s kind of like people playing slot machines…we know that there’s a chance we’ll get the reward, so we keep playing (and paying).
There are SO MANY fun things you can teach your cats to do – all you have to do is search YouTube and you’ll find tons of ideas for training your kitty. Have you heard of the Acro-Cats? I saw them in Portland a few years back, and it’s a must-see show. Yes, cats will be cats and not everything worked out perfectly in the show, but that’s part of the charm and humor of cats, I think. Everything that the cats learned for the show was through positive reinforcement; enjoy this video of the Acro-Cats and their trainer! Perhaps you and your kitties can start an act, too!