We know what you’re thinking: Cats can’t learn tricks. Not so. Cats are highly intelligent and many of them are amenable to learning tricks – or, as cats would put it, teaching you to give them treats.
But why train a cat? Doesn’t that take away from their inherent “cattitude”? We like to think of it more as enhancing their lives.
Cats are smart and active, and training provides them with mental stimulation as well as a physical workout. It helps you and your cat learn to communicate more skillfully, adding a new dimension to your relationship. And it’s just plain fun.
Kittens pick up tricks more quickly because their brains are more elastic, but cats of any age can learn new behaviors.
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All you need is a clicker, some aromatic treats your cat can gulp down quickly, good timing and a little patience.
Here are three easy tricks to teach your feline Einstein.
This is a great trick to teach cats who have a habit of jumping on guests’ laps uninvited or chasing people and attacking their legs. It’s also the foundation for teaching stay, sit up and wave. Start by holding a treat just above your cat’s head. As his nose goes up to sniff it, his rear automatically goes down into a sit position. The instant he sits, click and give a treat. Click and treat any time you see your cat sitting, whether you’ve asked him to or not. As you do so, give a name to the action – “Sit” – and praise him for it – “Good sit!”
Once he learns to sit on cue (cats don’t respond to commands, you know), you can have your cat sit as an alternative to things he might do that annoy you. For instance, if your cat likes to sprawl across your desk while you’re working, make it rewarding instead for him to sit at your feet or on a chair next to you.
This may be the easiest trick to teach, believe it or not. Every time you set down your cat’s food bowl, make an easily repeatable sound: ring a bell, jingle your keys or whistle a tune (don’t use the clicker for this trick). Your cat will quickly associate that sound with mealtime and respond instantly to it. Learning to come when called can save a cat’s life. If you need to evacuate your home because of a fire or other emergency, it saves valuable time if your cat comes when called.
Sound advice: Always reward your cat when he comes to you, and never call him and then do something he doesn’t like, such as giving him a pill or taking him to the veterinarian.
Touching a target
This is useful because it can help you direct your cat to certain areas. Use a target such as a pencil with a large eraser on the end or a narrow bird perch. Put a small amount of wet food on the end of the target and show it to your cat, holding it just far enough away that he has to reach forward to get the food. As soon as he touches the target with his nose, click and give him a treat. Gradually extend the distance the cat must come before touching the target. Once your cat will touch a target, you can use it to teach him to spin in a circle, jump through a hoop or go to a specific place.
Tip for success: Keep training sessions short, no more than two or three minutes at a time, since cats have short attention spans.
Mr. Biscuits, a cat in East Falls, Pa., nearly died after crawling into a car engine to get warm. The driver was unaware of his presence until he arrived at his destination and discovered the cat, who was severely burned over at least a quarter of his body. Mr. Biscuits, who earned his name by kneading his paws as the veterinarian cared for him, is facing surgery and skin grafts, but he survived, unlike many cats in similar situations.
To prevent such accidents, especially with winter coming on, thump your hood a few times or honk your horn before starting the car to dislodge any feline trespassers.
▪ If you see a dog who resembles a retriever with a curly coat, don’t assume he’s a Labradoodle. He may be an unusual breed called a curly-coated retriever. The curly, as he’s nicknamed, was developed in the 18th century and is one of the oldest of the retrieving breeds. Bred to hunt pheasant, quail and grouse and retrieve waterfowl, the curly is a wickedly smart independent thinker. His coat has small, tight, crisp curls. (Don’t blow-dry it unless you want him to look like a Chia Pet.) The coat sheds a little year-round, with a heavier shed twice a year.
Kim Campbell Thornton
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter @DrMartyBecker.