Updated: Jul 20, 2022
In our last blog, we gave you some really good reasons why you should train your cat. You say, "Great, but I’m not a trainer like you guys. I’d love to train my cat, but there’s hardly anyone out there who trains cats and I know nothing about it!"
No worries - we’re here to help you go from your cat’s servant to a CatBoss! There are just a few basic concepts that you need to get down and then the rest will fall into place. Here’s the number one rule of cat training - or most anything in life, for that matter. Nobody works for free, and that includes your cat. The single most important thing you must discover is what motivates your cat so they will not only work for you, they will beg you to work!
Rewards fall into four basic categories: food, toys, human affection, and verbal praise. Every cat is different and what my cat finds the most exciting might not be what your cat enjoys. The best way to find your cat’s favorite reward is to simply test them out. Play with lots of toys, test out different treats, talk to your cat in silly voices and see if they like it.
Our favorite motivator is food...your cat is finicky, you say? Sometimes they beg for treats, sometimes they turn up their nose? First thing to check is how you are feeding them. Are you leaving out a big bowl of kibble for them to snack on whenever they feel like it? Then, in their eyes, what do they need you for? Food magically appears in their bowl with no effort on their part. Start feeding your cat on a schedule if you want to train them. Even if you are gone during the day, you can still carefully measure out only what they will eat in about 5 - 10 min, and then pick it up. Most adult cats will do just fine on 2 meals a day, and they will begin to realize that you are the provider of their meal and worthy of their love and protection. Then, make them work for it. Start asking for a “Sit” whenever you feed them - don’t just put the bowl down on the ground. This reinforces the idea that food is a valuable resource that they must work for, just like if they were hunting in the wild. .
We often get asked what our favorite treats are. Most cats prefer wet treats with strong flavors, so we tend to favor things like microwaved chicken breast and “lick stick” type treats. We also use wet food in reusable baby food pouches. But if your cat loves hard, crunchy treats they can sink their teeth into, use those. We also mix “high value” and “low value” treats - it’s important to learn their preferences because when training some behaviors, we want to put an exclamation point on a job well done with their very most favorite treat.
If you control your cat’s meals and they are still not motivated by your treats, toys may be what gets them going. Try a variety of toys, and determine which are the high value toys just as you would determine the high value treats.
Yes, it’s all in the timing. Adult cats sleep 12 -16 hours a day. Not all at once - why do you think they call short naps, “cat naps?” Because they can go from 0 to 60 and back to 0 again in a very short period of time, it’s important to pick your training times carefully. You want to pick a time that will optimize their focus and ability to learn. If you are meal feeding as you should, the very best time is right after a nice nap and before you feed them. Cats are most active at dusk and dawn, which is their natural hunting times, so training them for a few minutes before
you go to work or start your day is ideal - and if you work outside the home, right after you get home from work. They will likely be well rested, hungry, and ready to engage with you. Training sessions don’t have to be long - 5 to 10 minutes when you first start out is optimal. The more short sessions you can work in, the faster your cat will learn, but even one or two sessions a day or even a week can go a long way. If at any point you or your cat are getting frustrated, stop the session and end it on a good note. Learning while frustrated is unproductive and will discourage everyone from wanting to do more in the future. If this means you only get 2 repetitions in a session that is fine. We are looking for quality over quantity.
Location, Location, Location….
Where you train greatly impacts your cat’s ability to focus and learn while training. When picking places to train, look for a quiet place that has low foot traffic, is away from any other pets, and is big enough to move around in. These attributes will help set your training sessions up for success. Once you have a place picked out, make sure you have the rewards and tools you need for the skills you will be working on. Check out this video of Malibu, a rescued feral kitten, who is learning how to go from Mark A to Mark B ("A" to "B" in trainer lingo). Many training concepts are illustrated in this video. Note that even though Malibu is friendly with Medley, and Medley loves cats, she is a slight distraction for Malibu, who loses his focus for a moment to turn around to see what Medley is doing, rather than keeping complete focus on Trish. Also note change in Trish's tone of voice when Medley starts to lose focus. There are times when you want to train your cats in the presense of distractions, particularly if you are training to perform for other people or for set work. Initially, though, you will want to train them with as few as distractions as possible while learning a new behavior.
Most animals do not reason in multiple steps like humans and struggle correlating cause and effect unless the effect is immediate. If you come home from work and find a puddle on the counter, it does no good to yell or discipline your cat because they won’t know what you are yelling about. They were happy to see you come home and came to greet you with tail held high, and all you want to talk about is the puddle on the counter. If a consequence (good or bad) doesn’t happen almost immediately, they don't understand why it happened. Humans are the only living creature that benefit from delayed reinforcement - if we receive recognition for a job well done months or even years after our efforts, we can connect those dots. With most animals, including cats, your window of opportunity to recognize good or bad behavior is measured in seconds.
This is where markers come into play. Markers bridge the gap in time between the time they complete the behavior and when they receive the reward. By pairing a sound with the promise of a reward we can cause our cat to have the same reaction to hearing the marker as receiving a physical reward. This is particularly important when teaching energetic kittens, working on distance, or working on complex behaviors. When using markers there are two main types: verbal markers and clickers. Both are great options: using verbal markers is great because, you never leave the house without your voice and you can have multiple markers by saying different words. The downside to verbal markers is that your voice can sound different - it may not sound all that different to you, but cats are very precise in their vocal inflections themselves and can make upwards of 100 different sounds - far more than dogs and other domestic animals.. Things like mood, allergies/health, or pronunciation can all affect how your markers sound and your cat's understanding of it.
Clickers, however, are much more consistent in the sound they make if you always use the same type of clicker. This can make it much easier for your cat to pair it as a reward marker. There are a variety of clicker styles so you can find one that is the most pleasing to your cat and feels the best in your hand. You do need to remember where you put it and to take it with you,
though, so we recommend the ones that fit on your finger or around your wrist. Having multiple ones throughout the house is not a bad idea, either. Both verbal markers and clickers are fantastic tools and they both have their time and place when training. We recommend training your cat with both so that you have options depending on the situation. For example, when teaching an exciting behavior you might want to use a clicker to promote an enthusiastic attitude and when teaching a calm thoughtful behavior you may want to use a verbal marker to encourage calm and thoughtful thinking from your cat.
We use a concept called shaping to build tricks and desired behaviors. Luring, capturing, and free shaping are the three forms of shaping we use in training. Luring is used to teach behaviors that your cat doesn't naturally offer - they will follow a treat or a toy, and when they perform the desired motion or go to the desired place, you then mark the behavior by giving them the treat or play with the toy . Capturing is used for behaviors that cats naturally offer regularly when you are around so you can reward them in the moment - for example, Free shaping is mainly used to teach behaviors that are too complex to lure, that aren’t naturally offered enough to capture, or when you want to give your cat some extra mental stimulation.your cat stretches and you stop to reward that behavior. Most behaviors can be taught using any method, so if one method doesn't seem to be helpful at the moment for a certain behavior try another one.
Free shaping uses a combination of luring and capturing behaviors to train multi-step, complex behavior by making the criteria for reward progressively more difficult or precise. For example, we might start training the trick, “Dig”, by just touching where a treat is and reward that. When they have that mastered, we then up the criteria by only rewarding when they pull up the towel it’s under, and last, only rewarding when they dig up the towel with no treat underneath it. The important thing is to go slow and be patient - and be ready to mark and reward when your cat offers the behavior you want!
Check Out Our New Training App for iPhone/iPad!!!!!
Ready to start applying these concepts? Check out our CatBoss TV Training app on the Apple App Store (coming soon!) and get ready to make your cat the talk of the neighborhood! Here's a teaser of what's coming! You can also access our store from this website and our app and order all our favorite training tools!