Grabby Cat: How to teach your cat to be polite around treats


Do you have a cat that grabs treats from your hand?

A persistent cat's sharp claws can quickly ruin the fun in a training session.

The first thing you need to know is that grabby cats are highly motivated to work and this is a good thing!

The training agreement you create with your cat goes like this: "Do behaviour X, and THEN you get your treat." 

Knowing these rules, a food motivated cat will quickly do what you've asked. "Fine, I did that, now GIMME my treat!" A cat that's less food motivated might walk away. "Sorry, the terms of this agreement are not up to my standards."

Ask someone to do a job when they think they deserve more money and chances are they will quit. A food motivated cat is highly satisfied with their paycheque and eager to show up for work. 

So how does a new cat trainer harness this motivation, while keeping their fingers free from scratches and bites?

My top five tips for working with a grabby cat:

1. Experiment with lower valued food. 
Have you ever had trouble concentrating when your favourite food is on the table? Sometimes good food can be very distracting. When people first start training they may think they need to use the best treats. Ideally, we want to use the lowest valued foods to teach the basics, and reserve the best treats for the challenging training tasks, like nail trims. Experiment with different foods for different jobs and find something that brings out your cat's best behaviour.

2. Start with targets.
Working with a target stick is an excellent way to teach your cat how clicker training works while preserving your fingers. Click for touching the target and place the treat on the floor or toss it away from you. If you are using a container (i.e., teaching fist bump) make sure you are clicking your cat for hitting the target, not your hand.  

3. Treats don't come from the hand that cues them.
Teach the cat that the treat doesn't come from the hand that presents the cues. Let's consider what happens when you teach your cat to target your finger. Initially, you may have a treat in your hand to lure (guide) them. Click, before the cat makes contact with your finger and surprise them with a treat that comes from your OTHER hand. "What - there are treats in both hands now?!" This exercise will teach your cat that treats come from where they least expect it and encourage them to work even when they don't see a treat.

4. Do distance work. 
The Go To A Bed or Mat tutorial turns the focus away from your fingers to an object. The Teach Your Cat to Perch tutorial uses the same principle. The cat learns that contact with the object (not you) is what will earn them a reward. 

5. Click for the absence of grabbing. 
A clicker is a precise tool that allows you to reinforce your cat for the absence of bad behaviour. In this video, I am doing a simple impulse control exercise. I place a treat on my hand and present my hand up high out of Jones' reach. As I lower my hand, I click Jones for stillness. Using the clicker, I communicate to Jones that even when there is a treat on my hand, the Sit behaviour is what will earn him the reward. I hope you can see what a powerful device the clicker is in helping your cat learn that patience not pushiness is how they win treats.

As you work through these exercises, avoid getting frustrated with your cat. Remember it's your job to teach them the rules of this clicker training game. Every cat can learn to be a polite and gentle training partner.

What is the best harness for your cat?

The best harness for your cat is the one that stays on. 

The best harness for your cat is the one that stays on. 

When I am out walking my cat on a harness and leash, I am well aware that this is not exactly the most widely accepted practice. However, knowing the benefit of having my cat experience the outdoors in a safe manner certainly outweighs the slightly awkward glances I get from my neighbours. For the most part, people’s responses have been quite positive; I get lots of comments about how cute Jones is all suited up in a harness that matches his eye colour, which is usually followed by people asking me where to get a harness for their own furry feline.

Here I will discuss the many of the important considerations when choosing the appropriate harness for your cat. Because the harness is responsible for keeping your cat safe and secure, this is arguably the most important piece of equipment on your adventure cat.

Not all cat harnesses keep your cat safe

Not only must a cat not be able to slither their way out of the harness, but harnesses also need to be strong enough to withstand a sudden jolt when your cat darts towards something. Before I got smart about harness selection, I had a few experiences where I was left holding a leash and harness with no cat. Luckily it was early in the morning and my cat, Jones, just darted home. However, these experiences highlighted the fact that not all cat harnesses are created equally.

The first harness I put on Jones was one with thin nylon straps. This is generally the most common one you find at pet stores. But Jonesy was able to easily maneuver his slender body out of the flimsy straps. Jones is a nervous kitty and has been known to spook at a thing or two. Based on my experiences, I highly recommend you avoid any harness that is of the thin-strapped variety.

A vest is best

If you are shopping at a local pet store choose a harness that covers much more of the cat’s body like a vest. The vest that I used for Jones (made by RCpets) is a soft nylon material that is fastened by velcro and fits more like a little vest. It covers a lot more of Jones body, than the previous harness, making it difficult (but not impossible!) to pull out of. Jones has had a few panicky moments where he has tugged so hard at the leash that one of his legs pulled through the front. It is also worth mentioning that these harnesses may be designed for dogs, however they are perfectly acceptable for cats to wear as long as they are fitted properly – a good rule is for the harness to be snug but you should be able to fit one or two fingers in between the harness and your cat’s fur.

Think holster not harness

While I feel comfortable with Jones wearing the vest for jaunts in our yard and around the neighbourhood, if we adventure further from home, Jones will be wearing a bodysuit with flashing neon lights.  All jokes aside, I am open to trying something that provides, even more body coverage to give me the confidence to venture further from home. Based on my theory that the more surface area of the body is covered, the harder it will be to slip out of, these kitty holsters look like they provide maximum security for experienced escapees. Even more reassuring is the many kitties I see many kitties on Instagram that are exploring the world safely with their holsters on (#kittyholster).


Only try this at home

Regardless of which harness/vest/holster you get, the most important thing is to make sure it stays on while your cat is in a safe zone i.e., your house and your fenced yard. Please don’t test out a new harness in an area that your cat is not familiar with. For example, don’t put your cat’s harness on for the first time on moving day or a road trip. In an unfamiliar environment, your cat is more at risk at getting spooked and ultimately getting lost.

Although safety is the most important thing, there are some other variables you may want to consider when selecting an appropriate harness for your cat.

Many cats will not allow you to slip a harness over their head

While I encourage people to slowly condition their cat to a harness, I do know that slipping something over a cat’s head can be a traumatic experience (for both of you!). If putting the harness on is going to make the whole leash walking experience traumatic, you may have to abandon this style of harness and opt for something that doesn’t require you squishing your cat’s head through a small hole.

Many cats won’t walk in the harness at first

At first, your cat will likely act like the harness is the most restrictive piece of equipment in the whole world – cats can be very dramatic about these sorts of things. The trick is to introduce them to the harness slowly, with lots of treats, and make the act of wearing a harness a positive experience. For example, immediately after putting on the harness, toss down a trail of treats for your cat to follow on the ground to redirect them away from the feeling of having the harness on. You’ll also be conditioning your cat to think harness equals treats falling from the sky. Practice very short sessions like this and your cat should be happily wearing their harness in no time.

Always supervise your cat

While I hope you are ready to search for your perfect harness, keep in mind that you should always be right beside your cat supervising their every move when they wear their harness. Never leave your cat unattended with a harness and leash.

Enjoy your time together

One of my favourite morning routines is to head outside with Jones for a leash walk. Knowing that he is safe and secure in a harness means I can have a coffee, and both of us can enjoy the outside world. Of course, there is one stressful part of walking Jones on a leash: having to get him back inside.

I hope you feel confident to purchase a harness that's just right for your cat.

xo Cat Teacher

Ps. If you have found the perfect cat harness for keeping your cat safe please share in the comments.