By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 12 May 2011)
Because they’re not pack animals, cats are not as amenable to training as dogs, but they can be trained to do a number of things using classical conditioning strategies – in other words, providing rewards for the desired behaviour. Repeatedly offering rewards such as treats or food when the cat does what he’s supposed to will ensure that he comes to associate a specific behaviour with the positive stimulus.
Can You Train a Cat to Come When He’s Called?
A cat learns early on that when he hears the phonetic sounds that make up his name, good things often follow, such as food or affection. As a result, he will learn to come when called, and this behaviour will eventually become automatic with regular rewards.
Cats can also be taught to respond to a signal, such as a jingling bell. If this sound is paired with feeding, most cats will eventually learn to come in response to the signal.
Can You Teach a Cat to Do Tricks?
Some cats can be trained to do tricks, but this usually requires a fair bit of work and patience on the part of their owners. Many cats can be trained to hunt for treats or toys, and some (particularly the more doglike breeds such as the Manx) can be taught to fetch and retrieve toys. Many owners have also been successful in training cats to jump at targets, run obstacle courses, and do a number of other tricks.
Most cats that learn to do tricks have been clicker trained. With clicker training, the clicker is paired with a positive stimulus such as food or affection until the clicker sound itself becomes a reward. Once this association has been established, the clicker sound can be used to praise the cat for success in learning a new trick or signal. Clickers can also be used to encourage cats to use the litter box or scratch post by making the clicking sound when the cat has just finished with the box or is scratching the post.
Can You Train a Cat to Walk on a Leash?
Many cats can learn to walk in a harness with a leash, and this enables owners to take their cats for walks so that they can enjoy outdoor time without risking the dangers of cars, pet thieves, and predatory animals. However, if this training isn’t conducted properly, the cat may just dig in his heels and refuse to budge. See Leash Training Cats for Tips.
How Do You Litter Train a Kitten?
Most kittens train themselves, but there are things you can do to speed the process along and reduce the risk fo accidents outside the box. See How to Litter Train a Kitten for more information.
Can You Train a Cat Not to Hunt?
There are a number of reasons why people want to prevent their cats from hunting, including:
- Not wanting to see small animals hurt or killed
- Environmental concerns regarding endangered local bird populations
- Desire to avoid conflicts with neighbours due to cats attacking pet birds or wild birds at neighbours’ feeders
- Distaste at having to deal with dead animals brought in as gifts
Unfortunately, cats can’t be taught not to hunt. Hunting is a natural behaviour, and attempting to train a cat not to hunt is an exercise in futility. However, hunting urges can be channelled into hunting simulation play, and there are a number of ways to prevent cats from catching birds and other small animals while still enabling them to engage in hunting activities.
Keeping cats indoors prevents the killing of small animals, as well as protecting the cat from a variety of deadly hazards, but many owners are concerned that keeping cats indoors will prevent them from living natural lives. Fortunately, many animal researchers have come to believe that cats can be happy indoors as long as they’re provided with an enriched environment.
Cats respond well to cuing devices such as clickers as long as they’re used only for training purposes. For the first few days, the click sound should be made right before feeding or providing treats so that the cat develops positive associations with the noise and gets used to coming when she hears it. Once this connection has been established, the click alone can be used as a reward for correct behaviour. Be careful not to make the click sound more than once or twice for a given action—over-cuing may cause the cat to stop responding to the sound.
Always use the same cuing device, the same wording, and the same tone of voice when training a cat so as not to confuse her. Also, use the cat’s name before each spoken command so that she knows that the command is for her.
Provide Immediate Rewards
Once training has begun, cats should be rewarded immediately for good behaviour with the clicker sound and a favourite treat. For example, if training a cat to come when called, make the click noise when calling and again when the cat comes, and follow the second click immediately with a treat. The same applies for teaching a cat tricks such as jumping on cue. Back the treat up with plenty of praise and affection as well.
In addition to providing immediate rewards for the desired behaviour, establishing general positive associations helps with certain training goals. For example, if training a cat to use a scratch post, leaving a favourite treat on the post for the cat to find, rubbing a little catnip into the post, and providing positive attention whenever the cat is using the scratch post or sitting on or near its base can be helpful.
Avoid Negative Strategies
Punishment is ineffective with cats. Rather than correcting behaviour, it tends to increase behavioural problems by causing anxiety. A cat will usually have no idea why her owner becomes upset when she engages in what are to her perfectly natural behaviours, such as scratching. Punishment will just make her view her owner as capricious and untrustworthy.
A cat may learn that her owner dislikes a certain behaviour, but if she really enjoys it or thinks it’s necessary, she’ll carry on with it unless her owner uses more effective behaviour modification strategies. In some cases, punishment may cause her to deliberately engage in the behaviour more often because she appreciates the attention.
Also, while holding training sessions just before a cat’s regular feeding time helps focus her attention, starving a cat in the hopes that it will accelerate the learning process by making her more eager to please will likely have the opposite effect. In addition to having adverse health and behavioural consequences, denying food will cause the cat will become less trusting and cooperative.
Reference: Sands, David, Dr. (2005). Cats: 500 Questions Answered. London: Octopus Publishing Group.