Can Cats Really Be Trained?

Dr. Lindell discusses this ongoing debate and why some training has its advantages.

Discussions regarding the trainability of domestic cats abound. There are people who insist that cats cannot be trained, or should not be trained. I am often asked, Why would you even try to train a cat?

Well, why not? Many dog lovers seem to enjoying playing the board game entitled My Dog Can Do That, in which dogs are asked to perform various tasks in order to earn points for their team. Do you know many cat lovers who play a similar game?

Lets begin with the suggestion that there is no reason to train a cat. Of course, we all know that there are some things that cats simply must learn. We do call them domestic cats even if the term is used loosely. Because they are domestic and share our homes, they must learn about certain house rules. So, we teach our cats to use litter boxes. We teach them to scratch posts instead of sofas. And we teach them that certain areas, such as stoves, are off-limits. It does seem that there are very good reasons to train a cat.

More often, when people refer to cat-training, they are not actually considering housetraining. Instead, the word training is meant to imply obedience or trick training. So, should a cat be trained to be respond to commands?

Some people are concerned that by asking cats to be obedient, we are thwarting their freedom to behave in an untamed, even wild, manner. Not to worry. It is very unlikely that a cat, by virtue of some simple training, would ever become so eager to obey that he would be mistaken for a sheepdog.

Training Has Advantages
There are many advantages to training a cat beyond the level of simple housetraining. For those people that spend much time away from the home, incorporating a brief training session into each day will assure quality time with their cat.

A training routine can provide security to a timid cat. By clarifying expectations, training improves confidence. This is an ideal way to encourage a cat to spend time with a family member that often triggers a fearful response.

For the overtly aggressive cat, training can add safety to social interactions with people. A cat can be taught that he will not receive any privileges for his aggressive behavior and that he must instead follow a command prior to earning his rewards.

Agreed then? Training wouldnt be such a bad idea. But can a cat really be trained to follow commands? Of course. You need only follow two basic rules. First, choose a behavior or trick that your cat is physically able to do. Second, find a reward that your cat will surely find irresistible. Brush up on your training skills and away you go.

What Training Skills Do You Need?
Mostly, youll need patience. Training cannot be rushed. Do not even consider forcing your cat to perform a behavior. You may use a treat or a toy to lure your cat into position. The moment your cat assumes the desired posture, reward.

epeat several times until the cat figures out what to do to earn his reward. Then, introduce a verbal command. That is, label the behavior.

A second method of training is to choose a posture or behavior that you find charming. Reward your cat each time he performs this behavior. Soon, he will perform with increased frequency knowing that a reward is forthcoming. When he performs to your satisfaction, add the verbal command.

Here is an example of how you might use the two training styles. First, suppose you want to teach your cat to jump onto a particular chair. Show him a treat, and lead him silently to the chair. Soon, he will see the treat and, being an intelligent cat, he will immediately jump onto the chair for his reward. You now have the behavior you were looking for. Show the treat, up he goes. Next, select a label for the behavior. Show the treat, say chair and up he goes.

For the second training technique, you may teach a behavior such as turning on your answering machine. Perhaps your cat taps the machine on occasion. The next time you notice this behavior, give a treat. When your cat discovers that touching the machine yields a treat, he will surely begin to touch it again and again.

However, only one section of the machine represents on. So, you need to shape his behavior. Begin to withhold the reward except when he hits fairly close to target. With each session, require a more specific hit before rewarding. Soon your cat will learn that he must touch one particular button to earn his treat. Now you are ready to label the behavior. As he reaches for the button, say messages; when he touches the button, treat.

A word of caution: when you leave the house, hide the answering machine.

Happy training!