Cats can’t be trained. How many times have you heard that statement? I’m here to tell you that it’s not true.
Most cats can–and should–learn how to do a few simple tricks. Some, such as coming when called, are useful, and others, such as giving a high five, are a fun form of enrichment for your cat.
Teaching and doing tricks with your cat deepens the bond between you. Cats enjoy spending time with their people, and it won’t take long before both of you are looking forward to your sessions.
You may not realize it, but your cat is already trained in several ways. Chances are you have a routine at mealtimes, one your cat knows and perhaps helped you develop. You may have already established other routines, like playing before bedtime, or afternoon snacks that your cat visibly anticipates. Cats learn a lot from establishing routines, so teaching tricks is just a matter of introducing a new routine.
We will focus on three tricks:
- Come when called
- Sit/sit pretty
- High five
What You Need
A quiet area that is comfortable for you and your cat.
Your cat’s favorite treats, something they don’t usually get that you use only for training sessions. This could be store-bought treats, freeze-dried chicken, low-sodium deli turkey, or roast chicken. If your cat is not especially food motivated, you can use a favorite toy as a reward. Some cats who enjoy physical touch may even enjoy a couple of pats (no more than a couple) as a reward. It generally takes a little longer to train non-food-motivated cats, but they will get there.
15 minutes of your time (training sessions will probably be shorter than this, but you need a few minutes to gather your cat and the treats or toys).
Optional: A clicker or anything else that makes a clicking noise. Even a ballpoint pen would do. Failing that, you can make a clicking sound with your tongue, so don’t worry if you don’t have an actual clicker.
How to Start
Start with your cat, the treats, and the clicker (or the clicking sound you’ve decided upon) in your designated quiet space. Click and treat once to make sure your cat isn’t afraid of the sound. Then choose a specific behavior to reward, such as looking in your direction. When your cat looks at you, click and then toss her a treat. Repeat every time she looks at you. Once your cat understands that offering you attention results in a click and treat (often in as little as one session), you can start to increase your distance from her.
As she approaches, click and treat. As she eats the treat, move around the room and repeat the click and reward as she comes to you.
When your cat comes to you consistently, add the verbal cue. It shouldn’t be her name (although you can use her name to get her attention), but a specific word, something simple, such as “Come” or “Here.” Say it when she looks up from finishing her treat and click as she comes toward you. Eventually, you will want to go into a different room from your cat and call her. When she comes and finds you, click and reward. When she comes consistently from different areas of your home, you do not need the precision of the clicker to communicate that she has done the correct behavior. Simply reward her when she comes to you on cue (with a treat, attention, play, or whatever your cat loves).
Sit and Sit Pretty
Sit on the floor by your cat, or if this isn’t comfortable for you, place her on a table or other raised surface. When she sees you have a treat, she may walk toward you. Say “sit” and bring the treat over her head. She will most likely stop and sit. When her rear end touches the floor or surface, click and then give her the treat. Tell her what a good cat she is! Repeat this a few times before ending the session. Sit training is a little more tedious for cats than coming when called, so keep sessions brief. When your cat consistently sits on the verbal cue, fade the click and simply reward her for a job well done.
Once your cat learns how to sit, sitting up, or sit pretty, is just a matter of raising the treat high enough over her head so that she has to sit on her hind legs to reach it. When she is already in a sit, say “Pretty,” as you offer the treat up high, click and give the treat when she accomplishes the trick. Again, keep sessions brief.
High five looks impressive, but it is actually an easy trick. As in teaching Sit, make sure you and your cat are on a similar eye level. Hold a treat in front of your cat at her shoulder level. When she reaches out her paw and touches the hand holding the treat, click and then give her the treat. Eventually she will understand she must touch your hand before getting the treat. At that point, stop holding the treat in the hand you are offering her, and when she touches your hand, click and give he the treat with the other hand. When she is consistent with that, start offering your hand in the palm up (high five) position and give the verbal cue “High five!” When she touches your palm, click and give the reward. Eventually, as with the other tricks, you will be able to wean her off the clicker and just reinforce her for responding the cue.
A Few Tips
Repeat each trick only four to six times for each session. Doing brief sessions two or three times a day is much better than a longer session that leaves your cat bored.
Use positive reinforcement only with your cat. Never get mad or punish her for doing a trick improperly or not doing it at all. Ignore it when your cat does the trick incorrectly and try again. If she walks off, she has decided the session is over, so try again later or the next day.
Be patient. Some cats pick up tricks in a few sessions. Others take a much longer time. Give your cat space to learn in her own time, not yours.
Enjoy the journey as much as the results. Consider these sessions time to bond and play with your cat. That should be an end in itself. The tricks learned are a bonus. That way, both you and your cat will come away happy every time the two of you do a session, no matter how it goes.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.