We have a two-and-a-half-year-old Maine Coon dude who really enjoys the food he can get. As I'm having good results clicker training my dog, I'm trying to find time to exercise my cat and teach him some cool behaviours.

Some tricks I thought about, but maybe not in the correct order are: (1) follow a target (a pen), (2) sit, (3) go in your tunnel, and (4) get in a box.

With dogs, it is quite clear where to start; I don't know what works well with cats, so how should I start his training?

  • 4
    cats are pretty hard to train in general... – ratchet freak Feb 14 '14 at 20:33
  • 1
    Start by teaching them to eat treats. Cats pick that one up fast. With time, you can get them eating half a dozen at once! – Oldcat May 13 '15 at 20:44
  • Note: There are at least two books on cat-training written by pros in the Animal Actors field. I haven't tried applying their techniques, but they seem to agree on the principles. Probably worth tracking down, if you're seriously interested. They point out that once a cat figures out the rules of the game, they may start doing the tricks spontaneously in the hope of earning the treat -- so be careful what you teach them. Also, re motivation: "If you want the cat to sit pretty, I feed him now; if you want him to do tricks I don't feed him yet. If you need both today, we need two cats." – keshlam Aug 21 '15 at 8:54
  • The other thing to keep in mind: As pack animals, dogs will do tricks just for praise. Most cats are mercenary little beasts; bribery is your best bet. – keshlam Aug 21 '15 at 8:56
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's definitely possible to train cats, you just have to take a bit more patience with them and try not to use the same methods as you would with a dog. Cats don't have the attention span for training sessions that dogs do, so it's much more effective to passively train them to do things you want. Thinking about it at the basic level, all training is an association between a command and a behaviour. So if you see behaviour that you want to develop into something they will do on command, reinforce it as much as possible.

For example, my big cat will come to me whenever I rub my hands together. He does that because whenever I pet him, I will rub my hands or fingers together first, so hearing that sound means that he is going to get attention. It's evolved on its own now, where he'll jump up at my hand to pull it closer to him if I don't pet him right away when he comes.

Now that's dependent on my big cat being a sucker for attention. My small cat doesn't care for attention unless she initiates it, so despite me trying the same things with her, the best I can do is get her attention.

Sitting is pretty easy, it's the one command that you can train them to do similar to training a dog. I simply worked on it each morning before I gave them food. As soon as they sat, they got food.

I don't really know how to get started with following a target, but getting them to go to a certain place is fairly straightforward. Hold your cat while you put some food or a treat that he really likes down in the place you want him to go to when you tell him. Take him a couple steps back and let him go. As he goes to get the food, you'll want to say your command. Simply associate your command with going to get a tasty snack in that place.

As he starts to catch what's going on, you can start working on setting the treat down while he can't see it, and give him the command to go to the treat. Once you have it established that your command means go to the place and he gets a treat, you can start saying the command when there isn't a treat sometimes. I think that cats lose interest in following direction if they aren't praised after each time.

A solution to where you don't have to place a treat down beforehand, is to work in where he comes back to you for the treat. That way you can tell him to go, and then tell him to come for his treat after he's done that.

Cats are hard to train, but not impossible, and a lot of is really tied to their natural interests. While we don't do a whole lot of training with our cats (especially now that they're basically getting old - 17 years), the types of things we focussed on were behaviours that the cats already exhibited an inclination for.

For example, one of our cats had a paw motion that resembled a "high 5" action. We reinforced the high 5 motion by giving her a treat when she would respond to one of us holding up a hand and saying "Dolly, high 5!" Unfortunately, she's gone deaf on us and so isn't as reactive to this activity as she used to be.

In another case, our boy cat Junior had a habit of standing upright to get a treat from the hand as we were lowering it to him. Obviously this was to speed up the treating process, but we used that to teach him to stand on his hind legs with a "stand up" command and a hand motion. When he stood (almost like a classic dog begging motion), he'd get a treat. He's getting a bit older now, but he will still react to the action.

We had a few more, but the keys to these were:

  1. Natural inclination. If cat really doesn't want to do something, convincing them to do it is pretty close to impossible. Remember, it can't reason out what you're interested in, so don't get frustrated by it's lack of inclination if it doesn't have it.

  2. Reward. As with most behaviour modifications around animals, rewarding positive and desired behaviours as opposed to punishing them when they don't is much more effective a means to getting them to do what you what you want. This doesn't always have to be a treat either, it could be a brushing with their favourite comb or brush, or just a good petting session.

  3. Patience. Cats are far less inclined to hang around for training sessions than dogs are, so you just need to be patient with them and work on it as the cat shows an interest. If the cat loses interest, trying to force it could undo the work you've already done, so resist the temptation to make it your schedule.

  4. Trigger association. Obviously the cat is doing the action to get the treat but, as with dogs, you can associate the word or action with the sequence that results in a treat. You don't always have to give the reward, but be careful that you don't reward so infrequently as to make the action lose appeal.

Good luck!

Cat training, like with dogs, depends on temperament and motivation. Some breeds are known for being easier to train, like Bengals or Siamese cats.

Food motivation can be promoted by having a strict feeding schedule. It makes it easier to use regular food instead of fattening cat treats as a "treat."

Teaching a cat "Sit"

If your cat is motivated "sit," is a pretty easy trick for a cat to learn. Using a treat, hold the treat over and behind your cats head until he sits. When he does sit, say "sit." Repeat this process, several times throughout the week, then try getting him to sit, by just using the command while he is aware that you are holding a treat.

Eventually you may be able to have your cat respond to the word "sit" without external motivation.

Teaching a cat to fetch

Fetch is a one of the more rewarding tricks you can teach your cat. Everyone I showed that my cat could fetch was impressed, and the cat loved the game and would even request a play session.

The most important aspect of being successful with fetch is to use a toy that your cat can actually carry in his mouth. Tiny plush mouse toys may work, but I've had the most success with mouth sized crumbled balls of paper and hair tie rubber bands, but be sure to put these away after play to ensure that these things are not eaten!

1. Test their interest with the right toys

First, you need to gauge your cats interest in a play session and have a good stockpile of throw toys (paper balls or hair ties). You will know your cat is interested in playing if your cat chases after the throw toy and bats it around. Paper balls are great, because they make noises. Rubber band hair ties bounce and are easier for a cat to carry in their mouth.

2. Throw lots of toys and let your cat chase the toys

When your cat loses interest in the throw toy, after batting it around, throw another.

The key here is making the game the motivation. You want the cat to learn that they can get more things to chase if they play fetch. You want to give them a steady stream of things to chase.

3. Keep throwing toys and reward your cat when a toy makes it back to you by throwing the toy again

Patience is key here, because you want your cat to bat the throw toy back to you. When the toy gets back to you, you can throw it again.

Eventually your cat will learn that the toy is much more fun when he brings it back to you, because he gets to chase it when you throw it.

If your cat is food motivated, a treat each time it brings back the toy may help encourage the process. However, in my experience, a cat that is already motivated to play will be interested in the better play experience.

  • My girl "taught me" fetch -- more accurately, throw on request -- but we're still working out the kinks. If she can see me, she gets distracted, drops the toy and trots over to say "nice ape", then can't remember what we were doing -- so after I throwdown the corridor, I need to duck back into a room. For related reasons, perhaps, she hasn't quite gotten bringing to toy to me, just near me. We're working on it. – keshlam Aug 21 '15 at 7:13
  • It sounds like y'all are having fun! Keep working on it. It takes a lot of practice. Maybe try sitting down on the floor, that's usually how I played. – Betsy Dupuis Aug 21 '15 at 15:03

There are a lot of great answers here and I think they have it covered. I just wanted to mention something that might help. I think that with a cat, targeting is probably the easiest thing to teach first.

We know that clicker training is a great way to train an animal. We also know that cats can have a pavlovian response as evidenced by every movie, commercial, and personal experience of a person turning on a can opener and the cat comes tearing around corners to get to the sound.

This technique involves a combination of that and a homemade tool. I made the tool buy buying a very cheap telescoping magnet tool from the auto parts store. They look like a pin when closed. You can tape a plastic spoon to the end of this and use a very small amount of wet food as the reward. When you train, you telescope it out and you can hold this and the clicker in the same hand or whatever is most comfortable for you. If your cat is skittish, you can do like they do when clicker training mice/hamsters and either wrap it in a cloth to muffle the noise or use a Snapple cap, which makes the same sound, but much quieter.

Cat's are naturally curious, so simply hold down the telescoped spoon and he should come to sniff it, especially if you rubbed the spoon across the top of the wet food and got some scent on it. When he touches the spoon with his nose, you can click and scoop a little food onto the spoon for him. Basically, just enough for a taste. You aren't giving a whole spoon full.

He'll keep following the spoon for the food and he'll eventually catch on that touching the spoon will get him more food. You can use this to lead him onto stools or chairs, lure him into sits or raises, and anything else you can thing of. Once the behavior is down, you can have him target other objects, such as your hand or toys, which can lead to fetch behaviors.

The biggest key in training a cat is your mind set. You can force a dog into a sit or a lay, though that's usually not the best way. However, with a cat, you can't force anything. You need to be prepared to have your cat flip you off and tell you that he doesn't care what reward you're offering, he's not performing. That's just cats for you. Keep sessions short and don't sweat it if they don't want to do something. Work when they will and quite when they don't. The more you get them to do a behavior, the more likely they'll be to repeat it, since it's ingrained.

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