In last months column, some of the benefits of leash training a cat were explored. These included offering a cat a safe opportunity to play outdoors, introducing a cat to new members of the household and improving a cats tolerance of being handled by people. In this column, I will suggest some strategies for teaching a cat to wear a leash and harness.
Obviously, it is not always possible to anticipate a cats reaction to his first leash. Some of you may have had the fortune to bring your kittens to early education classes, often called Kitty Kindergarten. Needless to say, it is generally much easier to teach a kitten to wear a leash before he has become set in his ways. That is, a kitten – unlike an adult cat – is less likely to have a strong opinion about the situation.
So if you have a kitten, now is the time to begin leash training. If your cat is already mature, his personality may dictate the strategy needed to assure that leash training proceeds safely and smoothly.
Train in a Safe Place
In all cases, initial training should take place in a confined area, a room with no easy escape routes. You do not want your cat to be able to crawl under or leap over an item, dragging his leash with him. He could hurt himself in the process. He could hurt you if you try to reach for him while he is nervously cowering under a piece of furniture.
Before your first lesson, try to learn some of the things that your cat seems to enjoy. Perhaps your cat loves certain treats, or a particular type of canned food. Are there certain games that your cat cannot resist? Is brushing the ultimate experience for your cat? These rewards will be needed to insure that your cat associates leash training with pleasure.
Finally, for training purposes, select a harness that is very easy to apply. Practice with a stuffed animal if needed so that there is minimal fumbling. Be sure that the training harness is not too small. If uncertain, select a harness that is just a little too large. You can always perfect the fit at a later date. (Also be sure that you choose a harness that is escape-proof before you venture outdoors with your cat.)
The following strategy should be used only for a cat that would be described as tolerant. This would be the cat that readily resigns himself to being hugged and lifted as his people please. This sort of cat accepts medication with minimal fuss, and is inclined to investigate or play with unfamiliar items that come his way.
Bring your cat, the leash and the rewards that you have selected to the training room. While your cat is waiting for you to give him his goodies, slip the leash and harness on him. You may play with him, feed him some favorite treats and/or brush him if that is his pleasure. Initial sessions may be only five or 10 minutes. The length is not critical – but it is essential that you end the session with a relaxed, happy cat. When you have declared that the session is over, remove the harness and also remove the food or toys.
Begin to incorporate some additional training into your lessons. It would be helpful if your cat comes to you when you signal to him. Sit beside him and show him a treat.
Next, extend your arm so that he needs to take a step for the treat. As he does that, use a word such as here, and reward him. Next, stand up, and show the treat. Again, say here as he steps forward. Finally, as your cat is relaxing, step a few steps away, fuss with the treat, and as he looks to you, say here, rewarding him as he approaches to take the treat.
Once your cat responds to here and is comfortable wearing the leash for about 10 minutes, you may begin to move out of the training room. Use a larger room before venturing outdoors. Your cat needs to learn that you will follow him fairly closely, and that there might be some tension on the leash. Try to avoid pressure as you allow your cat to guide you. If he heads for an unsafe area, use the here command to steer him your way. If necessary, put just enough pressure on the leash to stop him from moving forward.
Make Sure Vaccines are Current
And now, provided your cat is up to date on his vaccinations, you are ready for the great outdoors. Be sure to continue training at least every week so that your cat does not lose any of his skills.
The training I have just described is not meant for cats that are very fearful or aggressive. If your cat is not the tolerant type, then a very systematic desensitization program will surely be needed in order to assure safety and success.