Cat Training: ``Really!?``

Last Updated June. 15, 2019
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We love cats for countless reasons. We relish their affection and admire their independence, but few people put a lot of thought into training their feline friends. Cats have just as much intelligence as dogs, and yet when it comes to training pets, many people think of cats as untrainable!

Nothing could be further from the truth! Sure, cats often act aloof, but most actually respond very quickly to training. In fact, once you understand the basics you’ll find that cats are every bit as trainable as dogs — if not more so! With a good understanding of basic cat training techniques and a little bit of patience, you can teach your cat to do just about anything!

Getting started

It may seem like a lot to remember when you first dive into training, but as you work with your cat, just keep these basic techniques in mind and you’ll both do great. We recommend getting started on training right away. As soon as your cat becomes comfortable in your home, they can begin training.

Break training up into smaller sessions throughout the day instead of one long session, and always end training on a positive note. This will keep your cat from getting bored or frustrated. Don’t take it too seriously — make it fun time that you and your pet spend together and both of you will start looking forward to it!

Stay positive and patient

When many people start out training their cats, they think that they need spray bottles to keep their pet on the straight and narrow. While this may help you stop your cat from doing things you’d prefer they didn’t, it won’t develop trust between you and your cat — and effective training starts with a foundation of trust.

Instead of punishing them with a spray bottle or yelling at them when they do something bad, try to stay patient and positive. Rewarding behavior that you want will prove more effective in the long run than punishing bad behavior. Remember, you want your cat to enjoy your company, and to willingly do what you ask.

Reprimand thoughtfully
Staying positive doesn’t mean that you should never reprimand your cat. You just need to do it that right way. NEVER hit your cat — nothing will destroy you cat’s trust faster! A stern, “No!” is enough for most cats to alter their behavior, at least for a moment. If that doesn’t work, your cat may need a little more emphasis. Try saying, “No!” a second time and clap your hands twice. If this still doesn’t work, you may have to physically stop your cat while reprimanding. This means pushing him away from the couch he’s scratching, or picking him up off of the counter he is not allowed to walk on.

You have to time your reprimands effectively. If your cat stops the bad behavior before you can reprimand it, then you’re too late. Don’t use your cat’s name in conjunction with a reprimand — only use the name in praise.

Once your cat ceases the offending behavior, offer praise. Tell the cat that it’s a good kitty. That may seem counterintuitive but don’t worry, cats won’t associate the praise with the misbehavior; they’ll associate it with stopping, which is good behavior.

Never punish or reprimand cats when they come to you, no matter what they did beforehand. You want your cat to always associate coming to you with good things. This prevents them from running away from you when you call them, or when they think they might be in trouble. Remember, don’t hit your cat or spray it with water to deter bad behavior — this just teaches your cat to fear you, the opposite of what you want.

Be consistent
If your cats aren’t allowed on the table, then you must reprimand them every time they jump onto it. No exceptions. Cats don’t generalize information the same way we do, so your cat won’t understand that one time was a special occasion. Every time you let the behavior slide, you reinforce the idea that the behavior is okay. It may take a little time to get your cat to understand unacceptable behaviors, but before long one, “no,” will be all it takes!

Although you will have to reprimand bad behavior, you should redirect your cat any time you can. This means that when you see your cat about to do something they shouldn’t, like jump on the counter or scratch the couch, you distract them with something else. When you redirect their attention to a toy that you allow them to play with, or an activity that they enjoy, you reinforce positive behavior. Many cats respond better to this than they do reprimands, so try to redirect their behavior whenever possible.

The most effective way to train your cat involves rewarding the behavior you want to see from them. You should use verbal praise as a reward every time that your cat behaves properly, but you will also want to use another reward in conjunction — something like a treat, a quick pet or scratch or a toy they really love. You should also use your cat’s name anytime that it behaves well. You want your cat to associate its name with good feelings and good behavior.

To scruff or not to scruff
If you’re not familiar with the term, scruffing is how mother cats carry around their kittens. You can control an adult cat the same way by firmly holding the loose skin at the base of its neck. While kittens find this comforting, it can frighten adult cats, and some find it downright humiliating! Once upon a time some trainers used this as a training tool, but we don’t recommend this as an effective technique.

You should only use scruffing to control your cat when it is in danger, or posing a danger to you or someone else. If you do find yourself in this situation, support the cat’s hind end with one hand while you pick them up by scruffing with the other hand. Only do this as long as necessary, and release your cat as soon as possible.

Spend time with your cat
One of the best ways to reinforce positive behavior is simply spending time playing with your cat. This ensures that the cat gets enough exercise, and it will strengthen the bond between you and your pet. The stronger that bond grows, the more your cat will want to listen to your commands.

Now that you have an understanding of some basic cat training techniques, let’s focus on putting them to work. Every cat takes to training a little differently. Some pick up the basics very quickly, while others take a little more time. They might adopt one new behavior almost instantly while taking longer to figure others out. Remember to stay positive and patient with your cat as you go through this process.

Start with the litterbox
One of the best ways to start training your cat is starting with the litterbox. Of course part of this stems from sheer practicality — you want you cat to do its business in the right spot! An additional benefit, however, is that this will provide an easy win for you and your cat, as cats tend toward clean habits and typically want to bury their waste of their own accord.

If you have a kitten, litterbox training can be as easy as placing the kitten in the box at regular intervals to encourage him to use it, especially just after eating, drinking or waking up from a nap. Don’t hover, as cats usually want privacy when using the litterbox. Once your kitten finishes, offer praise and give a treat.

If your kitten goes to the bathroom outside of the litterbox, quickly place the kitten in the box. Don’t scruff the kitten or reprimand them — you don’t want your cat to think of the litterbox as punishment! Place any waste in the litterbox so that your cat will associate the scent with their box.

Older cats will likely take to the litterbox more readily, but if they seem to have trouble you may want to keep them enclosed in the room with the litterbox for a few hours. Make sure that they have plenty of food and water with them, and check on them periodically.

If your cat or kitten still has trouble using the litterbox, you may need to try switching to a different litter brand — some cats can be very fickle! If you still have problems, consider a trip to the vet as cats sometimes relieve themselves outside of the litterbox when they have health issues.

Train your cat to come when called
Most cat owners find it very rewarding when their cat comes to them when called. Additionally, other training will come much easier once your cat has mastered this behavior.

The easiest way to begin involves something you already do — feeding your cat. Start feeding your cat at the same times every day. Your cat will quickly anticipate the feeding time and when it comes to eat say, “here,” followed by the cat’s name. When the cat gets to where you’re holding the food, praise and pet the cat, then give it the food. Do this every time you feed the cat and with any special treats, and your cat will quickly associate you calling with getting fed. Make sure that you use the same words to call and praise your cat every time. This will help it understand what behaviors it needs to exhibit and to anticipate good things when you use that command.

Once your cat comes reliably for meals, start calling it at other times, while it is a few feet away. Remember to reward with treats and praise. Then, once your cat has mastered that, make it harder still by calling while in another room or while the cat takes an afternoon nap. Again, make sure to reward and praise every time, to further reinforce the behavior.

As you train this behavior, avoid picking up your cat when it comes when called. You want to ensure that your cat feels free to do as it pleases when it comes — otherwise your cat may ignore you if it doesn’t feel like getting picked up at the time.

Once your cat comes to your reliably for treats, you can start to mix it up. Continue to give treats some of the time when your cat comes, but add in non-food rewards like petting and scratching, catnip, and occasionally just praise. In time, your cat will reliably come to you even if you don’t have a treat waiting!

Train your cat to use a scratching post
If your cat has a bad habit of scratching furniture, introducing a scratching post can help alleviate the problem. Many cats will abandon inappropriate scratching materials for the post, but others will require a little training. Luckily, you’ll find training your cat to use the scratching post incredibly simple.

Start by placing the post in an effective spot. If your cat enjoys playing in a certain area, putting the post there will encourage your cat to play with it. Then call your cat to that spot. If it begins to scratch the post or at least show interest in it, reward with a treat.

If your cat doesn’t seem interested in the post right away, encourage playing around it. Toss some toys or balls around the post, or sprinkle some catnip on it. Often this will catch the cat’s attention and draw it to using the scratching post. If this works, reward with treats and praise.

Some cats take a little more time than others to warm up to their scratching post. In this case, you’ll take a more long-term approach. Reward your cat when it plays near the post. As your cat becomes more interested, reward it for sniffing the post, and then touching it. Finally, if your cat scratches the post, even once, give a special treat. Continue encouraging and rewarding, and before long, your cat will love its scratching post.

You may have to reprimand or redirect your cat’s behavior during this process. You want to discourage them from scratching inappropriate objects as you reinforce using the scratching post.

Now that you have an understanding of how the basic techniques work with training your cat, you can begin training all kinds of behaviors. Your cat won’t think of this as work, but as a fun new way to play together. Let’s look at a few fun behaviors you can teach your cat.

Teach your cat to beg
If you have successfully taught your cat to come when called, teaching them to beg will be easy for both of you. Start by holding a treat just above the cat’s head and saying, “beg.” When your cat stands up on its hind legs to reach for the treat, say “good kitty” or something similar and give your cat its treat.

Repeat this several times, and do it throughout the day. After a few days, stop rewarding with a treat every time. Randomize how often you reward with the treat, but always give praise. Once your cat successfully begs for the treat every time, stop holding your hand over their head and just issue the command. Once your cat goes into its begging pose, reward them with praise and a treat. After a few iterations of doing this without holding a treat or a hand over your cat’s head, begin randomizing when you give them the treat, but continue to reward with praise every time they complete the behavior. Before long, your cat will beg on command even without treats!

Teach your cat to sit
Most cat owners never think about asking their cats to sit when asked, but this command is very trainable. Start by sitting down near your cat with a few treats. Get your cats attention and say, “sit.” As you do this, move a treat over your cats head, and a little above eye level.

Your cat will look upward to follow you moving the treat and will most likely sit down to maintain balance. As soon as that happens, give praise and the treat. Repeat this several times, and it won’t take long for your cat or kitten to sit with the command and the hand motion.

Next you will want to start leaving out the hand motion and just use the command. Most cats will quickly associate the word with the action, and sit for their treat without needing the hand signal. If yours still needs more practice, then go back to using the hand motion with a treat for a while longer.

Once your cat sits every time you give the command, stop treating every time they sit. Give them a treat some of the time, but always give verbal praise. Throw in some scratches and pets, and your cat will enjoy sitting, even without treats!

Teach your cat to shake
You’ve probably seen dogs shake hands with their owners, but did you know that you can train your cat to do that too? Using the same principles you’ve used to train other behaviors, you can easily teach your cat to shake.

Start by getting on the floor with your cat. Tap the paw that you want your cat to use while saying, “shake,” and keep your hand near the paw. As soon as your cat moves its paw at all, reward with praise and a treat. Repeat this several times, and then start requiring more movement before you give the reward. Your cat will naturally start to reach for your hand with its paw. As soon as it makes contact, give the reward.

Once your cat will reliably perform this behavior, start moving your hand a little farther away when you give the command. When your cat masters that, make it touch your hand longer before you give a reward. Finally, when your cat will perform this behavior without fail, start to give the shake command without extending your hand. You cat will raise its paw in anticipation of the shake.

Now that your cat will reliably shake your hand, begin randomizing when you give them treats for this behavior, but remember to always give verbal praise. Start including petting and scratching instead of food treats. After a little more training, your cat will shake your hand for just verbal praise, and maybe the occasional treat.

Teach any behavior with these basic cat training techniques
The great thing about these training techniques is that they work with essentially every behavior. You can train your cat to play ball, lie down, stay, fetch or do just about anything else! Almost any trick you’ve ever seen a dog do, your cat can do just as well. Just remember these basics.

– Stay positive
– Stay patient
– Reprimand thoughtfully
– Be consistent
– Redirect bad behavior
– Reward good behavior
– Spend time together

Most of all, remember to make this a positive bonding experience between you and your pet. If you find yourself getting frustrated or impatient, take a break and just enjoy playing with your feline friend! The last thing you want is your cat to feel negatively about spending time with you.

Don’t think of training as a chore! If you stay positive and have fun with the experience, your cat will too. By mixing training with play, your relationship with your cat will blossom like never before. Despite the mistaken belief that cats cannot be trained, many owners find their cats incredibly responsive to training. Just stick to the basic techniques and your cat will respond well too!