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"You can train a dog, but you must persuade a cat!"
In the strictest sense, in the way that most people think of it, I reluctantly have to admit that one cannot train a cat. Most people, however, are pleasantly surprised to then learn that one can often persuade a cat to play along, almost as if they have been trained.
Upon further investigation it becomes clear that, in fact, not only is it possible to persuade a cat to play along, but that some cats can be persuaded to join in with almost any game you can devise; the barrier that presents itself, then, is merely the matter of communicating your ideas to the cat and then charming the cat into cooperation.
I say ‘merely’ because the obvious truth to all those who know cats is that cats love sport, as is evidenced by their joyous hobbies of rat wrangling, mole mangling and bird bothering.
It is no mean feat to charm the cat, the most charming of all the charming animals abroad, but be assured that the cat wants to be charmed; whether at play time or at any other time, a cat is a sucker for a compliment.
If, after enough practice, you become sufficiently proficient in the art of cat charming, you may even be able create the illusion that you are in charge of the game, whilst convincingly concealing the fact that the cat actually persuaded you to play with him.
In this article, I will appear to be showing you how to train a cat to ‘sit on command’ - although we now both know that I will actually be showing you how to communicate the idea of sitting on command to your cat, and then trying to persuade him to play along.
My first recommendation is as much a general piece of advice for cat lovers as it is a training task; learn as much as possible about cat psychology. To train a cat you have to learn what motivates him and make him interested in you. The better you understand how cats think the easier this will be. Experienced ‘cat people’ like myself (or ‘cat weirdoes’ as we’re sometimes affectionately known) can usually do this with any cat fairly quickly, but paradoxically it takes years of experience to learn how to quickly build such a rapport with a cat.
You have probably already achieved a good understanding with your own cat simply by spending time with him; most cats will warm to and even grow fond of anyone who is simply nice to them eventually. But understanding as much as possible about why he has the unique quirks and foibles he does will enable you to communicate your ideas more effectively in terms he will understand, and it will make it easier to persuade him to play your games - in this instance the game of ‘Sit on Command’.
We have some great articles in the Cat Psychology section of our website and I highly recommend Cat Confidential (by Vicky Halls) and Cat Detective (also by Vicky Halls)
Now you have worked out what motivates your cat, think about how to provide that in bite sized chunks. If food motivates him then this will literally be bite sized chunks of something nice like chicken or tuna, or an attention motivated cat can simply be rewarded with praise and encouragement or a stroke under the chin.
You will need to figure the details of this out yourself, hence the need for some understanding of cat psychology. For the purpose of demonstration I will assume you are using small pieces of chicken.
You also need to work out a ‘correct behaviour’ sound. The popular ‘dog clickers’ that are sold for dog training are fine, but I tend to simply click my fingers, some people just say ‘good cat’. Personally I think a dedicated sound that will only be heard during training gives less room for confusion. Again for the purpose of demonstration I am assuming the use of a click.
Ultimately, the key to using a ‘correct behaviour’ sound is less about the sound itself and more about timing; you have to make the noise at the exact moment the correct behaviour is displayed. At first you should also be diligent in offering a reward within a few seconds. This way the cat will quickly get to know that really the idea of any game is to get you to make the sound and everything else is superfluous.
Remove all disturbances, such as other pets or children.
Get the cats attention by giving a small sample of the chicken and making it clear that you have some more in your hand.
Do not under any circumstances let the cat bully more chicken from your hand. If your cat tries this then your first training task should be the game of ‘Be Nice to Get a Treat’.
Tell the cat to Sit. Say it directly to the cat, and say it clearly and firmly, but not aggressively.
Of course, at first the cat wont know what you mean, but this will get him used to the idea that you are trying to tell him something and that the word for what you’re trying to tell him is “Sit”.
Wait a few seconds and say it again.
Repeat this step a few times, randomly giving the cat a couple of treats. This will serve to keep him interested, but will also build a positive association in his mind between you saying “Sit” and him getting something nice.
Should the cat actually sit at any time during this stage it will be pure coincidence. Nonetheless, make the clicking noise and give him a treat. Fortune has smiled on you and has reduced the work needed in the next stage.
Draw the cat’s attention to the treat hand. Tell the cat to sit, raise the treat hand so his head lifts and gently push his rear end downwards toward a sitting position.
You will probably find he resists, but don’t be too forceful. Apply gentle pressure for a couple of seconds at most and then stop. Do this a few times and you should find that he comes to expect it and resists a little less. The moment you feel him resisting less you should click and reward this desired behaviour.
If he keeps resisting as much as ever and doesn’t seem to be getting the idea at all over the course of a few attempts have a break. Give him a reward and make a fuss of him, and stop for at least half an hour - maybe even leave it until tomorrow.
Should the cat actually sit at any time during this stage it may still be pure coincidence, or the cat may be starting to understand. Either way, make the clicking noise and give him a treat.
When you have completed the above steps, so the cat is less resistant when pushing his rear end down, and you are confident that he is starting to get the rules of this game, you can move on to the next step.
Tell the cat to sit, but don’t initially touch him. If he sits, click and reward, but to be honest that isn’t likely on the first attempt.
If he doesn’t do it, raise the treat hand and gently push his rear end downwards, but don’t click or give him a treat unless he goes into a more or less sitting position.
Not getting the click may confuse the cat to start with, however, he will understand that he has to do something to make you click (and get his reward) so he will be trying to figure out what. Persist with the above steps and he will eventually get it.
If you have been working for more than 5 minutes at this stage, stop. Reward the cat for his hard work by giving him some love and some treats. Try again from step 4 later, with a gap of at least half an hour- maybe even leave it until tomorrow.
You will find if you persist with this stage that at some point the cat just ‘gets it’ and will start to play along.
Up until this stage you may have found that some nay-sayers and sceptics will find it a great sport to discourage you and even mock your attempts. The moment the cat ‘gets it’ is the moment at which you can turn the tables and adopt your own air of self satisfied haughtiness (or you could choose to be more grown up than that, I suppose!).
6. Remove the Treat and then the Click
When you get to the stage where step 5 is easy you can start to remove the treat, and then the click.
Start by giving the treat at every other success, gradually space the treat out until the treats are handed out for participating in the game, rather than for success. (Note: praise should be given at every success)
At this point you may be able to just drop the click in one go, however, if the cat seems to get confused without a click then reinstate the clicks and start spacing them out, as with the treat, until you can drop it altogether.
Congratulations! You have now successfully persuaded your cat to play the game of ‘Sit on Command’.
Hopefully the underlying principles of how Cat Persuasion (or ‘Cat Training’ to the uninformed) have been clear and if you are like me you will now be thinking about how to apply the same approach to a more complicated game.
We have more cat training and psychology articles in the ‘Cat Psychology, Behaviour and Training’ section of our Cat Articles and Stories page.
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