Teaching Your Cat a New Trick

How can you teach your cat to respond to your requests? Try thinking of these as new behaviors – fun for your cat-rather than as tricks to be performed for someone else. Cats are smart, and one measure of their considerable intelligence is their ability to change their behavior – if there is a good reason to do so.

Learning is a way of modifying behavior in response to some change in the environment: In other words, if the behavior nets a reward, it will be repeated. The trick (no pun intended) is to discover what kind of reward is most enticing to your cat. For cats, effective rewards might be special food treats. Sometimes, simply because it feels good or is fun, the reward is the behavior itself.

What kinds of behaviors can you teach a cat? How about sitting when asked, meowing, sitting up, jumping over a stick or through a hoop, and fetching a thrown toy. Cats also enjoy learning to open cabinets with their paws-and some have had plenty of practice on their own.

Start by finding a food treat-a healthy one-that your cat really enjoys. Some examples are popcorn (popped in a pot or an air popper, with no salt or other additives), bits of hard cheese or cream cheese, or tuna. Introduce the treat from your hand or the floor, so that it becomes familiar. Because rewards must appear immediately after a task is performed, you must be ready with the food as soon as the cat does what you want her to do-for example, as soon as a sitting cat’s bottom touches the floor. To make it easier for yourself, consider using a clicker, a little clicking toy designed to be paired with a food treat. If you first teach your cat to associate the "click" sound with food (you do this by clicking and then offering the treat; click, treat and repeat), the click can be timed to reinforce the new behavior and you can then take your time reaching into the bag for popcorn.

Once you have identified and introduced a food treat, and perhaps taught your cat to associate it with a clicker, there are two approaches to training. The slower method is to simply wait until your cat sits, jumps, sits up or meows, immediately reward her, and then wait again. In time she will learn that the behavior is always followed by a reward. A quicker method is to lure your cat into performing the behavior by using the food, and immediately give her the food when she does the behavior. An example would be to show her a food bit and allow her to sniff it, and then slowly raise it so that her nose moves upward and her bottom reflexively moves downward. As she sits, say the word "sit," give her the food, and repeat. With some patience and a sense of humor, you’ll find that your cat may be even more willing than your dog to learn new behaviors.