Train Your Cat for Enrichment and Fun!

Think that behavior training can only be done with dogs and birds?  Think again!  You’ll want to include cats in the list of “trainable critters” after reading this article, and with just a little inspiration, I’m hoping that you will use what I’m going to share with you to start on a cat-training adventure.  Whaaaat???  Yes, you can train your cat!   And it’s a lot easier than you might think – you just need to find out what motivates your cat and use that to reward desired behavior.

Meet the Amazing Acro-Cats!

First, let’s actually take a look at what I’m talking about.  I recently had the amazingly fun opportunity to volunteer with the Amazing Acro-Cats while they were in Portland during their tour.  Wait a minute, who are the Amazing Acro-Cats?  They are a group of kitties rescued by Samantha Martin, a trainer and former zoo-keeper.  She rescues cats, fosters, and supports adoptions all over the country while touring the country with the Acro-Cats in their big purple cat bus. 

Several people have asked me about how the cats in this “cat circus” are treated with raised eyebrows, and have expressed concern that it’s not ethical to train cats for performance.  However, if you get the opportunity to see this show, you will learn that Samantha and her crew actually promote the well-being of cats, which I’ll get to in a moment.  Let me just say this: Samantha is the guardian of all of the cats in her show and they live with her in her home.  She uses ONLY positive reinforcement in her training, and the cats always have a choice in whether to perform a desired trick or not (which makes live shows not only unpredictable but endearing as well. Because cats will be cats, after all.).  All of the animals in her show (including rats, a chicken, and a groundhog) are well-loved and well-cared for.  But I’ll let Samantha and Polly, the production manager, speak for themselves about the show and what they do – take a look at this short video:


How does training benefit your cat?

By rewarding your cat for desired behavior with a treat or playtime or affection, you are using positive reinforcement to teach your cat that the behavior she exhibited was “good”.  Many behaviorists use positive reinforcement to help cats learn desired behaviors, such as using a scratching post instead of the furniture, playing with a toy instead of a guardian’s foot, or staying on a designated cat tree instead of hopping on a counter-top where food preparation takes place. Cats really only respond to positive reinforcement, as opposed to punishment, for correcting behavior issues, so it’s an important tool in any behaviorist’s tool box!

In addition to teaching your cat that you want her to use the scratching post, you can also train your cat to recognize verbal and visual commands to sit, give high-fives, come, and even go into her crate…and many other things.  There are many benefits to training your cat, which include:

  • Providing mental and physical stimulation – training prevents boredom, which can be the cause of many common behavior issues.  If a cat is bored, she’s going to find something to do and you might not like what she chooses!
  • Training using positive reinforcement strengthens the bond between cat and guardian – it’s a great opportunity to spend time with your cat and see what she can do.
  • Training your cat is fun!  You’ll be amazed at what your cat is capable of, and you’ll learn a lot, too.  You’ll need to figure out the steps required to train your cat to do certain things, and how to best communicate with your cat.  Then, you can invite your friends over and show off your cat’s skills.  You could even charge admission and start your own cat circus!

How to train your cat

It’s easiest to train your cat if she likes treats.  It’s even better if she likes treats A LOT!  That doesn’t mean, however, that even if your cat isn’t too food-motivated, she can’t be trained.  Affection, sweet-talk, and play can also be used as rewards.  You can give your cat a reward after she performs the desired behavior, or, you can teach her with a clicker.  The clicker sound is made EXACTLY when the cat performs the desired behavior, and then she is given her reward (treat).  She’ll soon learn to associate the click sound with the treat, and also recognize that when she hears the click, it means that she did something right.  So, the click acts as a bridge between the action and the treat…the clicker allows you to precisely mark when your cat does the thing you want her to.  And you’ll find that soon your cat will be doing things so that she can hear the click!  Associating the click with the reward is classical conditioning, and once your cat learns that the click means reward, you’ve opened up a whole new way of communicating.  Pretty cool, huh?!

So how do you get your cat to do what you want her to do in the first place?  Start off with something simple, like the command SIT.  I trained my cat Abbey to sit in about five minutes using this technique (you can use a clicker or not, your choice):

  • Start with a treat in your hand that your cat really likes. I usually hold the treat between my thumb, middle, and ring fingers, leaving my index finger as a pointer. When she sees that you have it, she’ll start to come to you.
  • When she walks over to you, move the treat just above her head and a little bit behind her (so that it’s just a few inches above her, and you’re moving the treat in the direction of her rear). She’ll follow the treat with her eyes, lifting up her chin to follow the treat…and usually, as the chin goes up, the butt will go down towards the floor.
  • As you’re doing the above motion, say “SIT”, and make a pointing motion down, with your index finger (and the treat still in your hand) – she’ll eventually associate the word and visual cue of your finger pointing down with the sit action.
  • As soon as her butt hits the floor, click the clicker (or say “good girl!”, or whatever), and then give her the treat.
  • Repeat as necessary!

HERE is a good video for teaching the SIT command, step-by-step (she does it a little differently than I do, but you’ll get the gist!).  Interestingly enough, after your cat learns how to do the command, it’s best if you don’t reward her every single time…the behavior will get “cemented” if you have her perform the trick occasionally without the treat reward.  This will keep her guessing – will I get the treat this time?  Let’s find out!  It’s kind of like people playing slot machines…we know that there’s a chance we’ll get the reward, so we keep playing (and paying).

There are SO MANY fun things you can teach your cats to do – all you have to do is search YouTube and you’ll find tons of ideas for training your kitty.

Take-home messages from the Amazing Acro-Cats

Even if you don’t get to see the Acro-Cats (and the Rock Cats, their very own band who plays tiny cat-sized instruments), you can still have a ton of fun training your cats.  First of all, you can train nearly any cat – you just have to discover what their skill-set is.  Samantha trains tiny kittens on-stage during her show to demonstrate that training is easy!  Within a few minutes, she has kittens jumping through hoops and spinning.  What will your cat be able to do?

Second, as I talked about above, there are so many benefits to training your kitties.  You’ll be providing them with mental and physical stimulation, which indoor cats often miss out on, causing boredom.  Boredom can lead to depression and/or behavioral issues, and enrichment and stimulation are great ways to prevent both of those things!

Lastly, I just want to reiterate that The Amazing Acro-Cats are strong supporters of local rescue organizations and shelters, and work hard to find kitties in need loving homes.  After their shows in Portland, Samantha donated a portion of the ticket sales to Furry Friends and House of Dreams, no-kill cat rescue organizations in Vancouver and Portland, respectively.  These organizations took in over $1100 EACH as a result of that donation and merchandise sales! 

I had such a fun weekend and met a lot of really great people, cats, and other assorted critters.  I hope I get to volunteer for them again, but for now, I’ll just have to look back at these photographs fondly. (Click on images to see them full-size.)

So did I convince you to train your cat?  C’mon, give it a try!  Let me know how you fare by leaving a comment below!


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