It’s not quite Mozart, but it’s music to animal trainer Miriam Fields-Babineau’s ears when Chewy tickles the ivories on his child-sized baby grand. On her cue, the Bengal cat plinks the keys at random, using both front paws.
Just as Fields-Babineau trained Chewy, you can train your cat to perform useful or entertaining tricks. We often consider cats to be such independent thinkers that we refer to these seemingly impossible feats as being improbable and “like herding cats.” But felines are actually quite trainable.
Fields-Babineau, based in Amherst, Va., says cat training always involves these components:
- Your positive reinforcement It helps to have a clicker for this, they advise, since you can offer food rewards tied to the sound of the clicker. You can find inexpensive clickers at pet stores. As your cat learns to do a trick on cue, the need to click will lessen and occasional rewards should suffice.
- Your patience Training builds gradually, with a number of repetitions and small steps toward a final goal.
- Your quick reaction Cats respond more quickly than dogs to something that’s rewarding, so you want to reinforce behaviors quickly.
- Your cat’s sense of fun “Do not ever force a cat to do anything,” says Marilyn Krieger, a Redwood City, Calif., cat behaviorist whose cat, Olivia, closes doors on cue.
Cats are most trainable when they’re kittens. “Make them work for you when you feed them,” says Fields-Babineau. But cats of any age and any breed can be taught tricks. It does help to understand the nature of your cat. For example, she finds that Bengals are more receptive to active tricks, like jumping, while Persians and Himalayas do well with passive tricks, such as staying. Bengals tend to move more, explains Fields-Babineau, while Persians and Himalayas tend to be more subdued. Here are three basic tricks your cat might master:
Your cat comes when you pop the top on a can of cat food, but will the little darling come when you want it to? Teaching your cat to come is a useful trick, not to mention that it could win you the respect and awe of visitors who think that you’ve become some sort of cat whisperer.
The key, says Fields-Babineau, is to break down this and other “tricks” into small parts. To teach your cat to come, start by holding a tasty morsel of a favorite food under its nose. Move the food 4 to 5 inches away to draw your cat to you. When your cat moves forward, deliver the reward and either click or say, “Yes,” or, “Good.” Repeat four or five times before you move farther away, at a distance of around 10 inches from your cat.
Most cats can learn to come from a short distance in five minutes or so, says Fields-Babineau. “Within a couple of weeks, you could have a cat coming to you from over 20 feet away.”
Teaching your cat to stay is particularly helpful when you don’t want to worry about it going outside when people enter and exit the house. Begin by clicking and rewarding your cat for very short stays. Hold an open palm in front of your cat, which is a cue for “staying.” If your cat doesn’t step forward or backward, quickly reward and click, says Fields-Babineau. If you also happen to catch your cat being still, or “staying,” reward it. Slowly build more time. Once you’re up to about 30 seconds, you can start distraction-proofing, or teaching your cat to stay despite your movements or the movement of objects and other animals. Remember, as Fields-Babineau says, it’s difficult for your cat to stay for long periods. But think of how much more manageable life would be if your cat would stay just long enough for you to make your way through the front door with an armful of groceries.
Closing a door
Krieger taught her cat to close a door after she noticed the cat head-butting the door. You can teach your cat to do this too by training it to first touch a target. Place some sort of target, such as a circle on a sheet of paper, in front of your cat’s nose. “The normal behavior is to touch it with the nose,’’ Krieger says. “As soon as your cat’s nose touches it, you click.” You also reward and offer the verbal cue, “Touch.” Gradually move the target farther away. As you say, “Touch,” your cat should learn to touch the target. Touching and closing a door that moves will become like play for your cat.
What, however, can be done if your cat is a bit more independent or, dare we say, stubborn? “I believe every cat is trainable if you find something that drives it,’’ says Fields-Babineau. “Every living creature has a certain reward it’ll do anything for.”
Image via Thinkstock
Kim Boatman is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat, based in Northern California whose work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals and shares her home with three cats.