“It’s like herding cats”, is an expression of exasperation often used when something’s almost impossible.
This is because cats have a reputation for being free-thinkers that only do what they want to do.
Does this mean training a cat is impossible?
No! The secret to success is finding that ‘must have’ treat to convince a cat they want to co-operate and earn that tasty morsel.
With this in mind let’s take a look at how training your cat could save their life, the secrets to success, and also litter box training.
Why Train a Cat?
It is an unfortunate truth that a frightened cat goes to ground.
Imagine it’s a dark night and your cat slipped past you out of the door. You call them. Nothing. Hours pass. You call and call and call…But to no avail.
A cat in an unfamiliar environment is liable to hide. The cat might be hiding only a few feet away under a bush, but is too terrified to move…even when you call their name.
The answer is to teach your cat ‘recall’. Thus, training overrides instinct.
Other examples of situations where training is invaluable include:
- Door Dashing: Prevent door dashing by training the cat to sit on a stool at some distance from the door.
- Paws-itive Pedicures: How much easier is it to clip a cat’s claws when they willingly offer you up a paw?
- Keep Off Counter Tops: Use reward-based training to teach Kitty to stay off the counters.
Cat Training 101
How do you achieve this miracle?
The trick is to motivate your cat to earn a treat. What you’re doing is making the cat think it’s worthwhile to come to their name / stay away from the door / get off the counter because they get a fur-bulous reward.
This is called “reward-based training” and it works…even with cats!
All you need is:
- A must-have treat
- A clicker
- Time and patience
Finding that ‘Must-have’ Treat
This treat needs to be super special and something your cat would (metaphorically speaking) walk over hot coals for. Every cat has one. Here are some suggestions:
Cheese, sausage, ham, tuna, chicken, steak, commercial treats, prawns, liver, pate…
We’re talking tiny amounts – the size of a pea – just enough to get a taste but not enough to chew.
If you don’t know what your cat will go bonkers for, then have fun finding out. Simply offer different scraps until you find something that pushes all the right buttons. Bingo!
What’s with the Clicker?
A clicker is a small plastic device that makes a ‘click-clack’ sound when your press it. The idea is to get the cat to link the click-clack noise with getting a treat.
Doing this is simple. Throw a treat on the floor. As the cat gobbles it down, press the clicker. Repeat. Pretty soon when your press the clicker the cat will look to the floor in anticipation. Good. Now you’re both ready for the next time.
Time and Patience
Each cat learns at their own pace, which means repeating the training regularly (several times a day) for short periods (a few minutes at most.) Consistency and repetition are key.
Leave it too long and the cat forgets previous lessons. Make each session too long and they’ll get bored.
Training Basic Commands
That’s all very well, but how do you go from looking for a treat to a cat that does tricks. Simple!
Get the cat to understand what’s expected and know they get a reward for doing it. Let’s take the example of teaching recall.
Keep some treats in a small pouch on your belt. Then use your own feline cunning. When the cat happens to walk towards you, click the clicker. The cat understand this is a down payment on a treat so trots toward you. Repeat this whenever the cat happens to head your way.
Once you’ve done this a few times, add in the cue word “Here”. What this has told the cat is: When I say “Here” you walk towards me and get a treat.
Eventually, the mere sound of “Here” is enough to have the cat trotting over and you can stop clicking.
Stop Door Dashing and Counter Surfing
If your cat went to an assigned spot on the cue word “Away”, this keeps the cat away from the front door. To teach this simply decide on the special spot, a low table or stool is ideal. Place a treat on it. As the cat picks up the scent and walks over. Click and say “Away”.
Regularly put treats on the stool, monitor the cat, and when she seeks out the treat say “Away”. Pretty soon, “Away” is enough to send the cat scurrying to the stool on the off chance…
Use a similar technique to encourage the cat off the counter. Assign a suitable sitting station where they aren’t in the way, and place a treat there. By making that spot super-attractive all off a sudden the counter-top loses its appeal.
Litter Box Training
Teaching your cat to be clean takes a slightly different approach. This is about the cat understanding where is the right place to go to the toilet, which means getting the conditions purr-fect and having them in the right place at the right time.
Most kittens learn to use the litter box by watching their mother. However, if your Kitty is slow on the uptake you can give her a helping paw. For a start, it helps to understand that cats are creatures of habit. Try and stick with the same litter (substrate) used in the first home. Something as simple as not recognizing the substrate can put a cat off.
Other top tips to get things moving in the right direction include:
- Litter Box Size: Make sure the tray is large enough for the cat to stand in with plenty of room to spare. Don’t expect the cat to maneuver to hit a small target.
- Litter Box Numbers: Cats are private creatures and like their own facilities. In a multi-cat household obey the golden rule: One tray for each cat plus one spare box.
- Litter Box Location: Obeying the privacy rule make sure each box is in a separate spot (not lined up in a row) somewhere than is quiet (so not next to the washer) that is not overlooked (not by the cat flap.)
- Substrate Selection: If you cat blanks the tray, then set up a few trays, each containing a different litter to find their preference.
What NOT to Do
Never punish the cat for toileting in the wrong spot. Simply clean up the mess and shout at a tree.
Punishing the cat makes them think you have an irrational dislike of their bodily functions. This backfires badly because they’ll still be naughty, but hide it from you…which makes cleaning up much harder.
When All Else Fails…
If medical problems have been ruled out and yet still the cat soils where they shouldn’t then try confining the cat to a small room. The idea here is to keep the cat in a large crate or small bathroom, with their food in one corner, bed in another, and tray in another. This plugs into the cat’s instinct not to soil their living area, and rather than foul their food or bed, they should choose the tray.
In addition, since cats learn by copying, trying mimicking scraping in a clean tray with a finger, to help the ‘penny to drop’ in the cat’s mind.
So there we are. We these training basic principles, you can adapt them to teach your cat just about anything…within reason. You can teach tricks by rewarding the slightest hint of the cat doing what you want. For example, to teach “Shake” you’d click and reward when the cat happened to lift the paw off the ground and labeling the action “Shake”. Once she volunteers the paw on command, you hold off rewarding until she raises it slightly higher than before…and so on.
But remember, never get frustrated and always make sure training is fun for your feline.