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Can You Train Your Cat?

By: Karen Commings

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"Sit. Stay. Come." Do these sound like commands you would give a dog? Well, if you are a cat owner who thinks that cats can't be trained to respond to commands the same way that dogs do, you're in for a surprise. Basic training for cats involves obedience training just as it does for dogs.

Obedience Basics

Cats often do not respond to commands unless they want to, so the real trick is making your cat want to do what you want. All animals, including humans, are conditioned to respond to cues in their environment. Conditioning is already at work in your home. Your cat has probably already learned to associate mealtimes with certain sounds and your behavior prior to feeding time. She has probably learned that when she hears you flip the top of a cat food can or shake a container of treats it's time to come running. Your cat knows that she will be rewarded with food when she hears these sounds. When you train your cat, you can reinforce any specific behavior with a food reward, preceding the reward with a sound that your cat will associate with an action to be taken.

Why Would I Want to Train My Cat?

You may question why you would want to train your cat, other than for the amusement of your friends and relatives. But imagine that you are coming home from grocery shopping with your arms full of shopping bags and that you must get inside your home without your cat escaping. Untrained, your cat, eager to greet you, may stick her nose out of the door as soon as you open it. Fearful that she may escape as you bring in your heavy load, you may have to confine her temporarily. Now, she feels as if she is being punished when all she wanted to do was welcome you home.

Sound familiar? Just ask your cat-owning friends how often their cats have accidentally escaped when someone has held the door open too long. If this seems like something that just might happen at your house, wouldn't it be nice to be able to issue a command like "sit" or "stay" and have your cat immediately stop in her tracks?

You may not want to train your cat to perform tricks, but training your cat to understand and obey a few common commands will help you to strengthen your relationship with her, help her understand what you expect and may actually help prevent a tragedy.

How It Works

You may already use sounds, such as clapping your hands or snapping your fingers, to distract your cat from doing something she shouldn't be doing. Obedience training, fortified by the sound made by a small plastic and metal clicker – a technique referred to as clicker training – encourages your cat to obey commands by associating them with a behavior to be performed, then the sound of the clicker and, ultimately, a reward.

To get your cat to associate food with the clicker, give her a food treat and then make the clicking sound. To determine if she has made the association between the click and food, click her and see if she comes looking for a treat or go to her regular feeding station and make the clicking sound. If she responds to either approach, she has made the connection between the click and good things happening. Training can then begin.

Schedule the training sessions prior to your cat's meal times. You don't want to starve your cat, but a hungry cat is more likely to be interested in food rewards. Keep each session about ten or fifteen minutes long, and select a location that is free of distractions or noise. Don't force her to compete with other stimuli such as the television or stereo. Give your cat your undivided attention during training sessions.

Select something your cat really likes to eat as a food reward, such as tuna or small pieces of cooked chicken. Be consistent with the command words you use. It will only confuse your cat if you say "come" on some occasions and "here" on others.

During training sessions, always use your cat's name along with the command you are trying to teach. Praise your cat when she performs the behavior for which you have called. Teach only one command at a time and repeat the lesson daily until she responds reliably. Once she has learned the first command or signal, move on to the next one. If your cat appears frustrated or impatient, quit and conduct the lesson at another time.

Sit

To teach your cat to sit, place her on a table. Hold the food reward over her head. Say her name and give the command, "Sit." Move the food back over your cat's head. As her head follows the food, she will naturally sit down.

As soon as she sits, make the clicking sound and say, "Sit." Give her the food reward soon after. If your cat does not sit as you move the food over her head, lightly press down on her hindquarters. As you do, continue to hold the food over her head and say "Sit." When she sits, make the clicking sound and give her a food treat.

Soon your cat will begin to associate the food reward with the command and you will no longer have to use the clicker to make her sit. Simply saying "sit" will be enough.

Come

Have you ever tried to get your cat into a carrier when it is time to visit the veterinarian only to find yourself forced into a frustrating game of hide and seek? Teaching your cat to "come" when called makes situations like this one a lot less stressful for both her and you. It's also very helpful if your cat escapes into the yard and you need her to come back home without a major manhunt (cat-hunt).

Once your cat comes to the feeding station at the sound of the clicker, say, "Come," then hit the clicker. When your cat comes, give her some food and praise her.

Continue this process but from other locations around your house. Eventually your cat should come to you reliably when you say "Come!" without you having to click her, though there should always be something worth coming for to reward her.

Stay

Teaching your cat to stay is a bit more complex. Place the food down on the floor about ten feet away from her. As she approaches, put your hand out to stop her, say, "Stay," and if she stops, make the clicking sound and reward her. If she keeps on coming, hold your hand out again and repeat the command, "Stay." Reward her only when she stops.

Repeat the process until your cat knows that "Stay" means she should freeze in her tracks.

Training one command may take anything from one or two days to a week or so, so be patient. Make the training sessions fun for your cat and for you and make them something your cat wants to participate in.

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