How to Train a Cat: The Ultimate Cat Training Guide

How to Train a Cat: The Ultimate Cat Training Guide

Oftentimes people hear the words "cat training" and think there's no way they'd be able to train their cat. The truth is that cats CAN be trained, and it's quite easy to get started. Some might say it's even easier than training dogs!

Whether you're looking to correct problem behavior, teach some obedience skills, or train your cat to learn fun tricks, cat training is an enriching, rewarding, and fun activity the two of you can enjoy together.

 Disclosure: Cat School may receive commissions from affiliate links included in this article.

Reasons Why Cat Training is Important

Contrary to popular belief, cats do require mental and physical enrichment. If not given proper stimulation, cats can become bored, which then leads to problems such as destructive behavior, weight gain, depression, and other health issues. Training requires your cat to problem solve while also increasing their movement, which makes it an excellent form of both mental and physical exercise.

Training with your cat will alsohelp to strengthen the bond the two of you share. It gives you a fun activity to do together, and it builds trust. As you work with your cat, you'll get a deeper understanding of their personality, their body language, and how their mind works. This understanding will build a closer relationship and be helpful in other areas of your cat's life as well.

Last but not least, training your cat can eliminate undesirable or problem behaviors. As mentioned, bored cats can become destructive, so if this is something your cat struggles with, training can help! You can also use clicker training to correct problem behavior such as unwanted scratching, biting, and counter surfing.

Before You Start Training Your Cat

While it is easy to get started clicker training with your cat, there is a little bit of prep work to do first!

Cat School Training Kit

Get the necessary cat training tools.

There are just a couple things you'll need to begin your cat training journey. The basic training materials include:

  • A clicker and target stick - These two important tools come together in our Cat School Clicker Training Kit.

  • Treats- You'll need a treat your cat is willing to work for. This will be different for every cat. Your kitty might prefer dry kibble, freeze dried treats, squeezable treats, or wet food. You might have to try out a few different options to find the right treat for your cat.

  • Cat School membership - The Cat School curriculum is the most comprehensive resource for clicker training cats, accessible right from your home. Whether you want to teach your cat practical skills, tricks, or understand how to use the clicker to solve problem behaviors, we've got you covered. You'll be able to ask questions, share your training accomplishments and get feedback from the teacher, an applied animal behaviorist. Get 30-days of access for just $1 with the purchase of the Cat School Clicker Training Kit!

If you'd like to go the extra mile and get all the materials you'll eventually need, here are a few other recommended items:

  • Small stacking cups - used for training a variety of skills, including high five, ringing a bell, etc.

  • Yoga blocks - also used for a variety of training skills

  • Treat pouch - to hold your treats and give you easy access during training sessions

  • Mat - used for a variety of training skills, such as "stay" and "place" (Cat School Teacher Julie uses a laptop sleeve)

Decide what you'd like to train your cat to do.

The training possibilities with your cat are endless. This means you'll never run out of things to do, but it also means it can be a bit overwhelming at first. With so many options of behaviors to work on, where do you start?

To help keep you and your kitty on track right from the beginning, it's important to decide what kind of behaviors you'd like to start with. What are your goals? Are you wanting to fix an unwanted behavior, work on practical skills, or learn fun tricks? Making this choice doesn't mean you can't expand into other areas eventually. It just gives you a solid starting point and prevents you from trying to go in too many directions too soon.

9 Cat Training Tips

Alright, so you've gotten the recommended tools and materials and you've chosen your training path. It's time to get started!

1. Start with something easy.

As with anything new, it's important to start with the basics first. As tempting as it may be to jump right into training your cat to jump through a hoop, chances are that would end in frustration for both of you. Start with some simple skills to show your cat that training is fun and easy.

Teaching your cat that the "click" means they get a treat is the first step of clicker training. Once your cat understands the click, you may want to try teaching them to sit. Target training is also a good, beginner skill. By starting with these foundation skills, you will be well prepared to progress onto more advanced behaviors.

2. Keep the training sessions short.

It can be hard to keep a cat's attention when they are new to training. Shorter sessions will keep your cat focused, and prevent them from losing interest or getting frustrated.

When your cat is first beginning, we recommend starting with 3-5 minute sessions once or twice a day. Short but frequent and consistent training sessions will be way more effective than longer ones. For example, having two to three 5 minute training sessions in a day is typically better than one 15 minute session.

As your cat advances, you can increase the length of your training sessions. If possible, try to end your session on a positive note before your cat loses interest.

3. Eliminate any distractions.

Pick a quiet area of your home for your cat training sessions – someplace with as few distractions as possible. Family members, other pets, and noises can be quite distracting, and your cat may not be able to focus.

If you have other pets, close them off in another room of the house so you and your cat can focus only on each other and the training. While there are strategies to train multiple cats at once, it's best to start off working with just one cat at a time.

4. Reward immediately and consistently.

The clicker takes a snaphshot of the correct behavior and let's your cat know which behavior earned the reward. For clicker training to work properly, it's essential to click right at the precise moment your cat performs the desired behavior. Because the click is a promise of a reward, it's necessary always to give your cat a treat after you click. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, so once your cat knows what behavior is earning treats, they will start to offer that behavior making it easy for you to add a signal down the road.

Woman training cat

5. Find the right reward.

There is no magical, universal training treat. Just as with humans, different cats have different treat preferences. Some may prefer dry treats or kibble, while others prefer wet food or squeezable treats. It's good to have multiple treats that your cat will work for.

You may also find that your cat is willing to perform easy behaviors for one type of treat, but that they require a higher-value treat for more difficult behaviors. A high value treat doesn't necessarily mean a more expensive treat. It is just a treat your cat sees as being special.

Again, this will be different for every cat, but typically it will be something they don't get to have on a very regular basis. For example, if your cat only eats wet food for their regular meals, they may see dry food as something extra special!

6. Don't punish the bad behavior.

As a general rule, cats don't respond well to punishment. Punishing your cat can lead to stress and anxiety, and it can damage the sense of trust you're building. Some cats will even view punishment as a reward - negative attention is attention, after all!

Clicker training is all about positive reinforcement. The idea is always to reward the desired behaviors. When your cat engages in a negative behavior, you should try to redirect or distract your cat rather than punish. Better yet, figure out why your cat is doing that behavior and try to prevent it or teach them an alternative one. For example, if your cat is scratching the couch, the goal is to teach them to scratch a more appropriate option.

7. Be consistent with your cues.

To avoid confusion, always use the same voice commands and hand signals for the behavior you are working on. Be sure that anyone else who trains with your cat also knows the correct commands and signals.

8. Train at the right time.

Training requires a lot of focus from your cat, so you will want to be strategic about when you do your training sessions. After a nap or first thing in the morning is usually a good time, as your cat will be rested and ready for an activity. Right before mealtimes are great too because your cat will be more willing to work for their treat rewards if they're a bit hungry. If your cat tends to be active at bedtime, you can engage in a training session with them before you go to sleep to help tire them out too.

9. Involve others

If you have other members of your household, it is beneficial to include them in your cat's training process. This is especially important if you're working on training out any unwanted behaviors. All members of the household should know what the training method and goal is so they can also correctly and consistently address the bad behavior when it comes up.

Involving others in the training also helps to build your cat's socialization skills.

Obedience skills

Obedience skills are a natural place to start. These include commands such as "sit," coming when called, "stay," "drop it," target training, eye contact, etc. Many of the basic obedience skills are used as building blocks for future skills.

Target

Target training involves teaching your cat to touch an object with a specific part of their body for a reward. For example, getting your cat to touch the end of a target stick with their nose.

Using the target stick, you can:

  1. Have a clear signal to move your cat from one point to another

  2. Guide your cat willingly into a carrier or backpack

  3. Teach fun tricks such as jumping over your arms or legs

  4. Help a shy cat overcome their fear of strangers. You can use the target as an icebreaker with strangers by providing a constructive way to interact

  5. Tire your cat out before bed. Grab the device and get your cat moving around the room like an agility course

Check out this target training article for more information, or watch the video below:

Sit

Teaching your cat to sit is quite easy and doesn't usually take much time at all. All you have to do is capture your cat's "sit" by clicking and rewarding whenever they do it naturally. Pair it with a hand signal and voice cue, and eventually your cat will learn to do it on command.

Check out this video for a tutorial:

Coming when called

Teaching your cat to come when called, also known as recall, is a useful skill. Not only is it nice when your cat comes when you call their name, it can also come in handy if your cat were to ever slip out of your house. Basically, you just need to use treats to entice your cat to come when you call their name and always reward when it happens. 

Check out this video for a tutorial:

Problem Behaviors

If your cat has a problem with things like biting, scratching, or counter surfing, don't worry! You can correct your cat's behavior with proper training.

Biting

The first step to correcting biting behavior is to figure out why it's happening as different situations will require different treatment plan. If your cat is playing rough and biting during playtime, try to keep them calm by interrupting play sessions before your cat gets too overstimulated. This strategy is no different than interrupting wrestling matches with dogs at the dog park and asking them to do some sits and stays to take a breather from play. The goal is never to punish the behavior, but instead prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Biting can also occur when your cat is bored and not getting enough mental or physical activity. Provide them with the means to act on their predatory instincts with toys they can chase, bite, and catch. Engaging in training sessions can help curb the biting behavior by teaching your cat self-control.

Furniture scratching

Scratching is an instinctual and natural behavior, that is important for your cat. If your cat is scratching your couch, the best way to correct this behavior is to provide them with plenty of other equally or more appealing scratching surfaces and use positive reinforcement to encourage them to make the correct choice.

Place the scratchers in various areas of your home, and also beside the piece of furniture they tend to gravitate towards and make them as enticing as possible, for example, with catnip and using your clicker to reward your cat.

Cover your furniture so you don't need to get frustrated with your cat during the training process. Fortunately, today, it's so much easier to find beautiful couch covers to protect furniture and make your home more cat-friendly,

Counter surfing

If your cat tends to jump up on your kitchen counter tops and that's not something you'd like, you can discourage this behavior in several ways. Here are a few suggestions for eliminating counter surfing:

  • Keep food and other tempting things off the countertops; finding snacks on the counter will reinforce your cat's jumping.

  • Provide your cat with a nearby alternative "parking spot," for example, a cat tree or high shelves from which they can be near you in the kitchen.

  • Make this new parking spot a fun place where your cat finds their favourite treats and toys.

  • Using clicker training, reward your cat for going to the new parking spot and teach them to sit there, for example, by training your cat to sit on a mat

  • If your cat finds nothing exciting on the counter and their new parking spot is a source of treats and attention, they should start to choose the new spot over the counter.

     

Tricks

There are SO many fun tricks you can teach your cat. Trick training is a great way to engage with your cat and strengthen your relationship. Many of the tricks require prerequisite skills like target training or sit, so be sure your cat has mastered those skills first.

Spin

To teach "spin" you'll need to use either a target stick or your finger to lead your cat around in a tight circle. Pair this behavior with the "spin" command, a click as the trick as performed, and reward with a treat! 

Check out this video tutorial:

 

Jump

You can teach your cat to jump up onto objects on command by using the target stick to lead your cat. Just as with "spin," you'll want to combine with a voice command and then click and reward when executed successfully.

You can use the target stick to lead your cat to jump over obstacles as well, such as your legs or your arms. Eventually you can even try teaching your cat to jump through your arms like in this tutorial video:

High five

Nobody can resist a cute kitty who high-fives! The training process for this trick has a few steps involving cups and sticky notes, so be sure to check out this tutorial video:

Cat Training FAQs

What if my cat isn't food motivated?

If your cat isn't willing to work for treats, it could be that you haven't found the right treat yet! Test out some different treat options to find one that your cat deems worthy and give your cat a chance to get used the new food; some cats are scared to try anything new.

Your cat's feeding schedule is also a big part of the equation. If your cat free feeds (meaning they have a bowl of food available at all times), they won't usually be very food motivated because they can just snack whenever they want. Adjusting your cat's feeding schedule from free-feeding to planned, portioned meals will make a big difference in their willingness to work for treats! 

What if I have multiple cats?

It is possible to train multiple cats at a time! It is a bit more to manage though, so if possible, it's recommended to start with one cat at a time. Training multiple cats simultaneously requires some prerequisite skills such as mat and/or chair training, as well as distractions such as food puzzles and/or snuffle mats.

We have a section in our online Cat School Course about training multiple cats!

Which behavior should I start with?

You should start with a new behavior that's easy, such as target training or "sit." Knowing how and when to build on your skills can be tricky though, which is why we have a step-by-step training roadmap to follow in our online Cat School Course! It will guide you through the training process in a logical progression, eliminating the any guess work on your part as to where to start and where to go next.

What kind of treats should I use?

As mentioned, there is no magical, universal training treat. Each cat will have different preferences, and different treats will work best for different situations. Check out this video on training treats for a more in-depth explanation:

Can older cats be trained?

Yes! Kittens and adult cats are all capable of training and learning new behaviors. Many think training is only possible with a kitten, but that's absolutely not true. In fact, kittens will have their own set of training challenges. There is really no age limit to training!

Can cats be harness and leash trained?

Absolutely! Harness and leash training is an excellent way to let your cat experience the excitement and enrichment of the outdoor world in a safe and controlled way. If you are interested in leash training your cat, we recommend our harness kit. We also have a leash walking course included with Cat School membership

 

Disclaimer. I am an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist (ACAAB), not a veterinarian or a certified pet nutritionist. This material is not a replacement for comprehensive advice about feeding your cat the most appropriate diet. I cannot be held liable for any choices you make for your cat, so please advocate for your own cat's health. Consult a veterinarian, preferably integrative or holistic, to oversee the changes you make to your cat's diet. Never starve your cat to build their food motivation; this is extremely dangerous. Cats that do not eat can develop a deadly condition called hepatic lipidosis.

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