Who's ready for cat training 101?

December 9, 2016

Mikkel Becker is the lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. She is a certified behavior consultant and trainer who specializes in reward-based training thats partnered closely with the pets veterinary team. Mikkel is the co-author of six books, including From Fearful to Fear Free, and was the featured trainer on Vetstreet.com.

If you arent training your cat, she's training you. Read on for training tools and the top three behaviors to train first for calmer cats at home and at the veterinary clinic.

Though cats are trainable (that's right-TRAINABLE), most people allow their feline friends to be the trainer by default.

Are you the trainer, or the trainee?

Persistent meows, paws at the arm, lying on top of the keyboard and knocking items off shelves are just a few of the feline behaviors people inadvertently reinforce by providing extra attention or other associated rewards like petting or feeding.

The fact that so many felines can master their people points to their adeptness at learning beneficial behaviors through cause-and-effect observation-meaning there's hope for people wanting to transition from trainees to trainers.

Both sides win

Reward-based training helps build deeper bonds and better communication between cats and their humans. It can also be directed towards specific agendas like increasing a cat's comfort level with handling and improving cooperation during care in the home and in the veterinary office. Watch the video to see how reward-based training can be used to acclimate a cat to its carrier:

If you're ready to teach a cat a trick or two (or 10!), here's a quick cat training starter, including helpful tools and which behaviors to target first.

Cat training tools

  • Clicker: A clicker serves as a marker signal to help animals pinpoint the specific behavior that earned them a reward. The clicker allows for consistent marker signaling amongst human family members and retains value by being paired with rewards. You may also use the click of a ballpoint pen or a verbal signal (e.g., “Good!”) as marker signals during training. But keep in mind that these may be more difficult to keep consistent across multiple people and may lose some significance when overused in other contexts, such as saying “good” in everyday talk or when you click to write with a pen. You can make the signal more distinct by using it in a way that's unlike how the cat would hear the sound in everyday life, such as using a chipper, higher sounding “Good!” A quieter clicker, such as the Clik-R or a clicker held behind the back, may be ideal for sound sensitive cats until the sound has a positive association for the feline.

  • Treats: Cats enjoy a variety of food rewards. In the home setting, pet owners can use the cat's normal meal as part of their training. For example, you can give licks of canned cat food from a spoon during training before giving the full meal. Training before meals also increases motivation. Divide treats into smaller portions to increase the duration the feline stays engaged. Giving the cat a food puzzle for their regular meal can encourage certain behaviors like resting on its bed as opposed to the counter or staying in its crate for longer periods.

  • Treat pouch, fanny pack or apron: Treat pouches may seem a little reminiscent of a scene from the '80s when big hair, neon colors and fanny packs were in high fashion. But these little gems are must-haves when it comes to easy reward delivery. In a pinch, you can use an apron with pockets, a photographer vest or a coat or pair of pants with easily accessible pockets to store kitty treats. Just remember, your pockets will very quickly fill with excess treat particles and crumbs. So choose an easily cleanable option. 

  • Toys: Kitties are often highly motivated by games, so you can use play as a reward as well. Use a cat's favorite toys or novel, regularly rotated toys in training. Wand and interactive toys are especially useful during training, as you can initiate a right response with the immediate reward of a game.

  • Cat bed or mat: A mat or bed with a grip bottom is ideal. 

  • Target stick or spoon (optional)

  • Petting and attention: For many cats the best reward of all is free! While it's true that not all cats relish petting and it's likely to be person- and situation-specific, for those that appreciate a person's comforting touch and verbal affirmations, these can be powerful behavior motivators.

Top three behaviors to train first

  • Go to space: Teach the cat to move to its bed, a mat or a cat-dwelling area when asked. The behavior boosts the cat's positive association and familiarity with a certain area, increasing her desire to dwell in the designated space. Go to space may be useful for guiding a cat away from other areas, such as the kitchen counter or dining table, and it provides a portable security blanket of sorts to increase the cat's comfort in spaces outside of the home, like the vet's office. You can also use it to guide the cat onto the scale or exam table.

  • Touch a target: This behavior encourages the cat to approach new people and directs the cat to perform other desired behaviors, such as move with their person out of an off-limits room and into a cat-friendly space. You can also use the target to direct the kitty to go into a certain area when needed, such as into their crate. In the veterinary hospital, you can use targeting to move the feline when needed or to encourage a positive association with the veterinary team.

  • Sit: Sit is a default behavior that can become the cat's polite way of asking for things it wants, like petting or food, and it can replace undesired behaviors the cat uses to get attention. Being prompted to sit and receiving associated rewards for the behavior offers the cat a predictable way to interact with people, including veterinary team members.

Watch the video below to see target training in action: