Sit, stay and fetch aren't tricks reserved for man's best friend. Sure, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but, as it turns out, you can teach those same tricks to cats (old or young) -- really. And just like training a dog, training a cat requires patience, practice and a lot of praise and rewards.
Rewarding your cat for a job well done (or a job well practiced, at least) will reinforce the behavior you want, whereas raising your voice or otherwise disciplining your cat will only stress you both out -- and neither of you wants that. Keep your training sessions short (just a few minutes at a time will do) and calm, but also remember: Practice makes perfect. It can take anywhere from several tries to several weeks for your cat, kitten or senior, to learn a new skill, and that will depend on your cat's personality and temperament. Now that you know you can train your cat, let's talk about how to do it; you'll be herding cats in no time.
Don't Stand on Ceremony: Teaching Cats to Sit
Consider teaching your cat how to sit as his first trick. Not only is it a basic skill your pet -- cat or dog -- should know, it's also a building block to other trainable skills, including other tricks on this list.
Before you can train your cat to sit -- or train your cat to do anything, really -- you need to get his attention and hold his attention. And any cat owner knows the best way to do that is with food.
For "sit" training, hold your cat's favorite treat (or a small piece of his favorite food) over his head. The best spot? Experts recommend holding it a few inches above his ears or holding the treat above his head and moving it toward his tail -- that way he'll have no choice but to sit, at least slightly, in order to get a better look at what you have (and what he wants from you). Reward him immediately for his efforts and he's on his way toward learning that new skill [source: WebMD].
Mastered sitting? Raise the treat instead, and you'll begin to train him to stand on his hind legs -- another trick that begins with the simple "sit" command.
Slip Me Some Skin, Kitten
Your cat can give you high fives with a little practice every day, a lot of praise and a little incentive (and when we say incentive, what we really mean is treats or small bites of her favorite food). Training your cat to high five is similar to training her to sit; begin by holding a treat slightly over her head, raising it high enough that she needs to reach for it -- when she does, touch her paw, say "High Five!" and give her a reward for her efforts.
Once she's mastered how to high five, it's just a little more practice to turn that into a hand shake, a wave goodbye, or even something as cool as closing drawers or cabinet doors for you when your hands are full.
Jump Through Hoops
There are a few different ways to train your cat to jump through hoops, but we're going to talk about one of the easiest and most popular ways to teach your cat to go over, under or through obstacles: luring.
Luring is basically nothing more than getting your cat to chase a lure (target), such as a favorite toy or favorite treat. The target should be held just far enough away that your cat will need to follow you as you move with it; so, for example, if you want your cat to jump through a hoop, lead him first with the lure. If you want him to negotiate over or under an obstacle, lead the way with his favorite treat. Cats are smart, and he'll quickly understand what you want him to do -- the trick is to reward him for his obstacle-navigating behavior as soon as he does what you ask or you'll probably never see him jump on command again.
Walk On a Leash
A collar and leash designed for a dog isn't going to work for walking your cat (and it can actually damage your cat's trachea). The best way to walk your cat is with a harness, specifically one made for her and one where the leash attaches to the back of the harness (rather than to the neck, as it typically would on a collar).
Choose a feline-friendly harness that fits snugly around her torso with an easy-to-fasten buckle or Velcro. A rule of thumb on fit: If you can slide two fingers between the harness and her body, the fit is good. With a good harness at hand, let her get used to the harness before she wears it on the town; reward her every step of the way when you put her in her harness, and let her get used to how it feels walking around safely indoors before attempting your first outdoor walk.
Some cats may crave the outdoors, but others may be nervous or easily frightened. Begin your outdoor walks in a quiet, safe location, and don't expect to do much walking your first few times out the door. And remember: Be gentle, be patient. With a lot of praise and plenty of treat rewards, your cat will soon be taking you for a walk around the neighborhood.
Stay on Target
Target training involves getting your cat to go to a target consistently. This can be as simple as a tennis ball on a stick or even the end of a pencil. You want to consistently use the same object for your target. Once you have a target, you want to start encouraging your cat to touch it, either with a paw or his nose -- your choice.
First, hold out your target item. When your cat begins to show interest by sniffing at the target or making contact with it, give him a treat. Once you've established the connection between the target item and a treat reward, start moving the target away from cat. Any time he follows the target and touches it, reinforce the connection with a reward. Once the cat consistently goes to the target, you can attach a verbal cue, such as "come" or "here" to the activity.
Target training can form the basis for more complicated tricks down the road, such as twirling or even walking into a carrier on command.
If your cat's pawing food out of its bowl to eat, it might be more than an annoying habit. Learn how cats can have whisker fatigue at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 5 Things You Can Train Your Cat to Do (Really)
As the mom of a Sphynx cat, I've given and received kitty high-fives, played fetch as well as hide-and-seek, and reaped the benefits of target training in action (it sure can make those times when the crate has to come out a little bit easier). One thing that didn't require any training, though: holding hands.
More Great Links
- Pets 101: Cats
- Petfinder: Cats
- Animal Planet. "Cat Guide: Top 5 Funny Cat Tricks." (March 28, 2013) http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/top-5-funny-cat-tricks.htm
- ASPCA. "Teaching Your Cat to Walk on a Leash." (March 28, 2014) http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/teaching-your-cat-walk-leash
- ASPCA. "Training Your Cat." (March 28, 2014) http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/training-your-cat
- Campbell Thornton, Kim. "Can you teach an old cat new tricks?" NBC News. Oct. 15, 2007. (March 28, 2014) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/20841270/ns/health-pet_health/t/can-you-teach-old-cat-new-tricks/#.UzTYGvldVbw
- Johnson, Ruthanne. "It All Clicks Together: Tips for Clicker Training Your Cat." All Animals Magazine. April 28, 2011. (March 28, 2014) http://www.humanesociety.org/news/magazines/2011/05-06/it_all_clicks_together_join.html
- Larimer Humane Society. "Unleash Your Cat's Potential: Try Trick Training!" 2003. (March 28, 2014) http://www.larimerhumane.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=141&Itemid=15
- Orr, Joan. "Click and Laugh: Fun Cat Tricks!" Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Sept. 1, 2008. (March 28, 2014) http://www.clickertraining.com/node/1776
- Sellers, Jennifer. "How to Teach a Cat Tricks." Petfinder. (March 28, 2014) http://www.petfinder.com/cats/cat-behavior-and-training/how-to-teach-a-cat-tricks/
- Shaffer, Chris and Linda. "Agility Training For Your Cat." The Cat Fanciers Association - Feline Agility Competition. (March 28, 2014) http://agility.cfa.org/clicker-training.shtml
- WebMD. "Healthy Pets: Training Tips for Your Cat or Kitten." 2009. (March 28, 2014) http://pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/kitten-training-tips