Basic training for cats

Thousands of cats end up parting company with their owners every year, often due to behaviours that the owners consider problematic: such as scratching the furniture, jumping into places that owners would prefer them not to (e.g. the baby’s cot) and scratching and/or biting their owners. Basic training with your cat may help prevent such problems and improve your relationship with your cat. For a long time, many people thought it was not possible to train cats, but in fact they can learn in the same manner as dogs.

As with all animals, the best way to train your cat is through the use of positive reinforcement. This means giving your cat something nice when it performs a behaviour you like, and ignoring any unwanted behaviour.

The cat will learn to associate the desired behaviour with something rewarding and will therefore be more likely to perform that behaviour again. If the undesired behaviour has no positive consequence, the cat is less likely to repeat it. In this way, we ‘shape’ our cat’s behaviour to suit us.

A good place to start is to train your cat to perform a very simple task such as ‘sit’.

Using one of your cat’s favourite food treats, move the food over their head and as their gaze follows the food and their head moves back, their rear end will naturally lower into a sitting position. At this point give the food to your cat while it is sitting.

Move position so that the cat follows you and releases from the sitting position and try again. We often need to reward approximations of the behaviour we want (i.e. taking baby steps towards the desired behaviour). So if the cat does not sit on the first try, give it a helping hand to the correct behaviour by initially rewarding when it lowers its back end.

When the cat is reliably sitting when you use the food as a lure, you can begin to add the verbal cue ‘sit’ just as the cat is sitting. It will then begin to associate the word ‘sit’ with the action.

Every cat is different and each will prefer different activities and it can be a fun task finding out what your cat likes best. Consider whether your cat is motivated by food? Does he or she like certain treats such as special cat biscuits, prawns or small pieces of ham for example? If he or she is not very food motivated, what about a favourite toy or game? Do they enjoy playing with a fishing rod toy with you? Or do they like to be groomed?

Carrying out your training sessions when your cat is hungry or motivated to play or be groomed will help successful training by keeping the value of your reward high. Using a variety of rewards can also help.

Teaching your cat to use a target is often useful. This means teaching your cat to sit or stay or place a paw or nose on a certain object or location. Gradually increase the amount of time your cat stays with the target before the reward. The basics of targeting can be used to teach your cat not to jump on worktops (but sit on a target mat instead on the floor) or to enter the cat carrier (by placing the target mat inside the cat carrier).

You can train your cat to do many fun things. This will be mentally and physically stimulating for your cat, which is of particular importance for indoor-only cats who live in a more static environment. Such training tasks can include ‘fetch’, ‘paw’, ‘beg’, and even navigating mini agililty courses set up in the home.

While kittens and younger cats may learn certain tasks more quickly than older cats, it is never too late to start training. The important thing to remember is to keep training sessions short (no longer than a few minutes in the first instance and building up to a maximum of 10-15 minutes). Kittens and older cats are likely to have shorter attention spans and different cats will have differing tolerance to the length of training.

The most important thing to remember is always end the training session on a positive note, when your cat is still interested. Do not exhaust them. Integrate your training into your daily routine and make it as fun as possible.

No force is used during positive reinforcement training, therefore your cat is free to walk away from the training at any point. If your cat does abandon the session, the treat you are offering may not be appealing enough or your training session may be too long. Try changing the treat to something of higher value (e.g. tuna, prawns, ham, a more active toy) and remember to keep your sessions short.

A cat that is actively engaged in training may vocalize in a positive manner for the reinforcer (purr or miaow), will exhibit relaxed body language and will orientate its gaze towards you.