Teaching Your Old Cat New Tricks

Believe it or not, it's easier than you think. You just have to work with her natural behavior.

We have all heard the popular phrases that support the notion that cats cannot be trained. Tee shirts remind us that “dogs come when called – while cats take a message and get back to us.” When a dog is not particularly obedient, he is said to be “more like a cat than a dog.” Yet we all know that cats are intelligent and quite capable of learning. In fact, people have successfully trained fruitflies and fish.

Perhaps the misconception arose because old-fashioned training strategies which rely on coersion are generally ineffective when used on cats. On the other hand, reward-based training methods are both effective and fun. When an animal (even a cat) is rewarded for demonstrating a particular behavior, he will repeat the behavior in the future. That is the principle of positive reinforcement.

A reward-based training technique requires that you find a reinforcer that is truly rewarding. What is your cats pleasure? Is there a treat so delectable that your cat would be willing to jump through a hoop, literally, just for a taste? Consider not only commercial cat treats, but fresh food instead. Morsels of meat, fish, cheese or even cantaloupe can be tested as potential reinforcers.

It is somewhat more difficult, but nevertheless possible, to use rewards other than edibles. Cats that adore play may work for a toy. For some cats, there is no greater pleasure than the stroke of a brush.

Once you have found a suitable reward, consider what behavior you would like to teach your cat to demonstrate on cue. When your cat first learns to learn for you, it is best to select a behavior that he demonstrates regularly on his own. For instance, most cats sit or lie down without being told.

In fact, one effective method of training involves simply rewarding the desirable behavior each time it occurs. Once the behavior is repeated reliably, it can be labeled, and finally, the label can be used to cue the behavior.

Pick any posture that you find endearing. Perhaps your cat does a charming rollover, or sits while you fix his meal. Plan to give your cat a treat as soon as he engages in the behavior.

Lets use “sit” for supper as an example. Whenever your cat sits, hand him a treat. Before long, he will routinely enter the kitchen and immediately sit. Add the cue. Just as he is about to sit, say the word “sit” and give him the treat. He will learn to associate the sound with the action. You have trained him and are now able to command him to “sit” at times other than when he was going to do it anyway.

Another training strategy involves the use of a treat as a lure. Without touching your cat, show him a treat and steer him into position. You can lure your cat to “sit” by first holding the treat in front of him so he can see it clearly. Next, move the treat slowly upward. Your cat will naturally lower his back end to the ground as he tries to keep an eye on the snack. The moment he sits, reward him.

With repetition, your cat will begin to sit as you reach toward him with the treat. You are no longer luring him. Now, name the behavior. As he is about to sit, say the word “sit” and reward.

As long as a cat is physically able to perform a behavior, you can use a lure to guide him and then name the behavior so that he will respond on cue. Cats can be taught basic commands such as lie down, shake, high five, and go to bed. Many cats are willing – sometimes even eager – to jump through a hoop, run through a tunnel, fetch or even turn on an answering machine.

Some tasks may be taught just for fun. What better way for a cat to charm your company than to show off some tricks? And most cats do have a sense of humor, particularly when it comes to appeasing their humans.

On the more serious side, it can be very helpful to have a cat that can comply on cue. A cat that has been taught to offer a paw to shake may be less frightened when a veterinarian must hold a paw for a blood test. A cat that can lie down and roll over can be easily checked for fleas and ticks.

The first few tasks may seem a bit tedious. But with time, your cat will understand that there is an incentive to paying attention. Train regularly. Use a variety of rewards. Plan short sessions. And most importantly, always end a session with success.