Cats Are Trainable and Cool, Too
Is Your Cat Trainable?
Your cat can, in all probability, be trained. Felines are not the dumb animals some people would have you believe they are. Stubborn? Perhaps. Arrogant? Most likely. Good at playing deaf? Certainly. Stupid? Probably not. Cool? Definitely, as only cats can be.
Why Training Might Be Difficult
The main problem you will encounter in training your cat to perform is that felines are generally self-pleasers, unlike dogs which are people-pleasers. A canine will do almost anything for a pat on the head or a word of praise. This is not so with animals of the feline persuasion. Unless you own a confused kitty that identifies with dogs and perhaps fancies he is one, training your cat can be a contest of wills and/or wiles. Nothing can make you feel more like an idiot than attempting to teach commands to a confident cat that lacks good reason to be taught anything.
To ensure success in your training endeavors, you must give your cat a stimulus to learn. The most common motive for mastering a particular task is to receive a reward. In the human world, it could be a good grade in school, a new toy, a pay raise, or a smile and a clap on the back. For Snookums, the only reward that counts is F-O-O-D. The usual fare won't do. It must be something especially tasty and tantalizing.
Engage in field research before you begin attempting to train little Four Paws. Find out what pleases Punkin's palate. Learn what tickles Tiger's fancy and makes his tail twitch. Although dairy is not a good food for cats because most felines are lactose intolerant, my own kitty favored tiny bits of cheese, the kind that comes in individually wrapped slices. I'm fairly certain this was because she was in cahoots with the mice in our area. Why else would she passively watch a rodent in my garage run right under her nose and raise nary a paw to squash the little beast?
Choosing the Correct Time
With your cat's favorite goody on hand, look for the 'teachable moment.' Not just Ralphie's teachable moment--I mean yours, too. Success in training your cat involves choosing a time when you and your cat have nothing more pressing to do, such as chasing dust in the sunlight, gazing out of the window at birds, or snoozing. Midnight won't appreciate being awakened from his nap just to learn to roll over or some equally ridiculous dog-like trick. Wait until your cat is wide awake. Pick a time when your tummy is full, and your cat's stomach is rumbling a bit.
Start Snowball with something easy. When you see him sitting quietly, say three words: 'Sit. Good sit,' and promptly reward him with a treat. Your cat becomes more trainable with consistent rewards. Repeat this procedure every time you and your cat are primed for a session. Keep training sessions short--five minutes or less.
Cats don't enjoy being forced to do anything, but sometimes you will have to put Spike in position to show your cat what you want him to do. For example, to teach the 'down' command, gently push your cat to the floor into a resting pose. I call this the Sphinx position. Quickly say 'Down. Good down,' and give your cat a treat. Repeat this process several times during each training session, giving him a reward each time.
When training your cat, incorporating hand signals to go along with the verbal commands is beneficial. Some cats respond better during training if visual cues are used. Make up your own hand movements or consult your vet or a dog trainer for standard signals. I have used a combination of verbal commands, American Sign Language, and signals I devised. Being consistent with verbal commands and hand signals is one of the major keys to success in training your cat.
Patience, Patience, and More Patience
I cannot stress strongly enough that you must be patient when attempting to teach your cat. It took six weeks (that's right--six weeks) for my cat to make the connection between 'sit' and cheese. I nearly gave up, assuming she was either too stupid or stubborn to perform. However, once she caught on, she learned other commands more easily. We worked every day to firmly entrench the commands and signals in my cat's memory. After a couple of weeks, she had learned how to sit, come, lie down, beg, and play dead. Due to extreme laziness, Fluffy preferred the 'dead cat' trick. She welcomed any excuse to flop down and play dead without prompting. I, of course, would immediately reward her with cheese and the words 'Good dead cat.' One of us was trained very well!
Reinforcing the Lessons
Sometimes your cat may seem not to understand the verbal commands and hand signals you have taught him. He might be testing to see if you will give him a treat without insisting that he obey. It is important to your sanity and your cat's continued obedience that you do not repeat a command. Give the command once, accompanied by the appropriate signal, and wait for compliance. This is where the battle of the wills comes in. Don't degrade your cat's intelligence, or your own, by repeating the command over and over. Once he has mastered a command, your cat knows what you want. After that, whether or not he obeys depends on how badly he wants the treat.
If your cat genuinely seems confused and doesn't respond to a certain command during a training reinforcement session, start with a trick you are sure she has mastered so the two of you don't become frustrated with each other. Set aside time later to work on the command she couldn't perform. Even we humans need to be retrained once in a while.
Give It a Whirl
I urge you to give training a try, if for no other reason than the satisfaction of knowing you have achieved the seemingly impossible task of teaching your cat a few tricks. Remember: your kitty really is trainable. Commitment, dedication, determination, and immeasurable patience will enable you to withstand the inevitable snubs and the looks of contempt and disinterest most felines display until they learn that performance is indeed profitable.
© 2011 Mary R. Schutter