by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats prefer to train us rather than to be trained. Many cats have already learnt some routines, especially around food, outdoor access and sleeping, so it is possible to train them to obey commands.
Dogs learn to please us while cats learn to advance themselves. While training methods are similar, it can take longer to achieve results and the result may not always be what you wanted! Training cats requires dedication, time, patience and imagination.
Now that the weather is improving and many cats are spending more time outdoors a useful training option is for them to come when called.
Animals learn to associate actions with consequences so it is important to have a significant number of good consequences for a cat to respond. If every call in the evening results in being locked in for the night it won’t take long before the cat refuses to be found anywhere when called.
What do we need for this training? Obviously a cat and a treat, but also a command.
Treats used for training should be of high value and only available for training or rewards for best behaviour. Try chicken, tuna, cheese, meat-flavoured baby food (not containing onion), kitten food, or any other favourite, even a portion of their standard food for fussy or allergic cats. The portions must be small, one lick or a 5mm square of food. Cats that do not react or work for food are more difficult to please, some will respond for attention or praise. Most cats have something that they really like; once they learn that this is only available when they perform a task it is possible to train them. A cat that is hungry is easier to train.
The command used to call should be short, crisp and preferably ending with an ‘ee’ sound called in a high-pitched voice, e.g. ‘Kitteee’. Since we use their names often in conversation or when angry it may be useful to use a nickname or other command for this particular training. Select one that is not in common use in the home as that will be confusing – whenever the word is used your cat will expect a treat! If there is a chance you may have to walk the streets calling, be careful of the word you choose!
Training sessions should be kept short, no more than a few minutes at a time and may be scheduled many times a day. There should also be a definite start and end to a training session. Maybe start by finding your cat and offering a treat and cuddle. To end offer a final treat and walk away. If food is used as a treat their must be an equivalent reduction in meals to prevent him from becoming overweight.
Begin by associating the command with a treat. At first just say the command and offer a treat; do this two or three times then say the command and wait for a reaction before offering another treat. Gradually move away and call the command, offering a treat every time he looks interested, then only offer a treat when he comes to you. This process may take a number of training sessions depending on him, your patience and the number of treats available. Try not to offer too many treats per session, keep to about 6 to 8 otherwise they are no longer special treats.
As he learns to make the connection between the command and treats, make him work harder for treats. Move further away, into another room or call at random times during the day. Each him he answers there should be a reward. Gradually treats can be replaced with meals, attention, praise, games, grooming or other pleasant activities.
Once the behaviour has been learnt it is important to keep the association with good treats so call and offer treats for no particular reason.
A very important aspect of training cats is that there must be no punishment at all ever. Any form of punishment will create a negative consequence and he will think before responding in future. This command should not be used in anger or for a visit to the vet, as creating an alternative consequence for the behaviour could mean he will not respond next time when you really need him to come indoors.