Training your cat may sound like an oxymoron, but it actually is a very useful tool in your toolbox. Every animal has the ability to learn, and your cat is smarter than you may think. With just a few minutes a day, you could not only train your cat to have useful and fun behaviors, but you can also teach them behaviors that could save their life.
Most people have heard of clicker training, especially in reference to dog training. Clicker training is a form of mark-reward training that is very popular. When choosing the marker to use with your cat, keep in mind that your cat may think the click is loud, annoying or startling. Alternative options to using a click as a marker are: a voice click, a kiss noise, an unusual distinctive word, a pen click, or a very short ringtone. Whichever marker sound you pick, be sure to use it consistently and only when you are cueing the desired behavior. For example, you would not want to choose to say “good boy” as your marker, when you tell your cat he is a good boy all day long when not in training. Before you begin a training regimen, remember to consult an animal trainer, behavior consultant and/or veterinarian.
Target training is easy for most cats to learn, because they instinctively reach out to touch items with their nose in order to smell them when introduced to their environment. Target training opens a two-way communication with your cat. By using small approximations toward the desired behavior with positive reinforcement, you will be able to use the baseline of target training to build a multitude of other behaviors. For example, it can be used to move a cat to a spot you want them to move to without physical contact, and to introduce fun behaviors such as weave and go through a hoop.
When working with a cat on a behavior modification plan, it is most important that training is more fun to the cat than the alternative undesired behavior. If your cat has the basic behaviors (touch, sit, go-to-mat, stay-on-mat) then each of these behaviors can be cued before or during an undesired behavior. For example, if your cat likes to counter-surf and you see he/she is about to jump onto the counter, you can present the opportunity for reward by offering go-to-mat, mark, and then reward. Your cat will soon learn playing the “game” with you is more fun and rewarding than looking for scraps on the counter.
When working with a cat who is fearful of their carrier, using mark-reward training can alter the cat’s perception of the carrier. By showing your cat that rewards come when they go near the carrier, or inside it for those cats who are more advanced, then the cat now has a positive association to the carrier. You will also be able to teach your cat to enter the carrier on cue using mark-reward training. Wouldn’t that make vet visits so much easier?
One of the most fun things that you can use mark-reward training for is walking on a leash. First, you’ll need to get your cat conditioned to the harness and leash, which also has a process to follow. Once accustomed, your cat is ready to learn how to walk beside you on a leash so you can go on outdoor adventures! Don’t forget your flea prevention! Another useful reason for leash training, is to use during introductions and re-introductions of cat-cat, cat-baby, cat-dog, etc.
The most important behavior you can teach your cat through mark-reward training is the recall, also known as “come”. Anytime you are in an emergency (such as a fire) and you need to scoop up your beloved cat, you can use the recall.
On top of the useful cues you can teach your cat, you can also incorporate fun behaviors such as high-five, roll-over and accomplishing agility obstacles. Most importantly, utilizing mark-reward training with your cat increases the level of your bond. Think of it as a fun game you do together, where everybody wins!