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Smart Cat Tricks

By Kim Boatman

Smart Cat Tricks

It’s not quite Mozart, but it’s music to animal trainer Miriam Fields-Babineau’s ears when Chewy tickles the ivories on his child-sized baby grand. On her cue, the Bengal cat plinks the keys at random, using both front paws.

Just as Fields-Babineau trained Chewy, you can train your cat to perform useful or entertaining tricks. We often consider cats to be such independent thinkers that we refer to these seemingly impossible feats as being improbable and “like herding cats.” But felines are actually quite trainable.

Fields-Babineau, based in Amherst, Va., says cat training always involves these components:

  • Your positive reinforcement It helps to have a clicker for this, they advise, since you can offer food rewards tied to the sound of the clicker. You can find inexpensive clickers at pet stores. As your cat learns to do a trick on cue, the need to click will lessen and occasional rewards should suffice.
  • Your patience Training builds gradually, with a number of repetitions and small steps toward a final goal.
  • Your quick reaction Cats respond more quickly than dogs to something that’s rewarding, so you want to reinforce behaviors quickly.
  • Your cat’s sense of fun “Do not ever force a cat to do anything,” says Marilyn Krieger, a Redwood City, Calif., cat behaviorist whose cat, Olivia, closes doors on cue.

Cats are most trainable when they’re kittens. “Make them work for you when you feed them,” says Fields-Babineau. But cats of any age and any breed can be taught tricks. It does help to understand the nature of your cat. For example, she finds that Bengals are more receptive to active tricks, like jumping, while Persians and Himalayas do well with passive tricks, such as staying. Bengals tend to move more, explains Fields-Babineau, while Persians and Himalayas tend to be more subdued. Here are three basic tricks your cat might master:

Your cat comes when you pop the top on a can of cat food, but will the little darling come when you want it to? Teaching your cat to come is a useful trick, not to mention that it could win you the respect and awe of visitors who think that you’ve become some sort of cat whisperer.

The key, says Fields-Babineau, is to break down this and other “tricks” into small parts. To teach your cat to come, start by holding a tasty morsel of a favorite food under its nose. Move the food 4 to 5 inches away to draw your cat to you. When your cat moves forward, deliver the reward and either click or say, “Yes,” or, “Good.” Repeat four or five times before you move farther away, at a distance of around 10 inches from your cat.

Most cats can learn to come from a short distance in five minutes or so, says Fields-Babineau. “Within a couple of weeks, you could have a cat coming to you from over 20 feet away.”

Teaching your cat to stay is particularly helpful when you don’t want to worry about it going outside when people enter and exit the house. Begin by clicking and rewarding your cat for very short stays. Hold an open palm in front of your cat, which is a cue for “staying.” If your cat doesn’t step forward or backward, quickly reward and click, says Fields-Babineau. If you also happen to catch your cat being still, or “staying,” reward it. Slowly build more time. Once you’re up to about 30 seconds, you can start distraction-proofing, or teaching your cat to stay despite your movements or the movement of objects and other animals. Remember, as Fields-Babineau says, it’s difficult for your cat to stay for long periods. But think of how much more manageable life would be if your cat would stay just long enough for you to make your way through the front door with an armful of groceries.

Closing a door
Krieger taught her cat to close a door after she noticed the cat head-butting the door. You can teach your cat to do this too by training it to first touch a target. Place some sort of target, such as a circle on a sheet of paper, in front of your cat’s nose. “The normal behavior is to touch it with the nose,’’ Krieger says. “As soon as your cat’s nose touches it, you click.” You also reward and offer the verbal cue, “Touch.” Gradually move the target farther away. As you say, “Touch,” your cat should learn to touch the target. Touching and closing a door that moves will become like play for your cat.

What, however, can be done if your cat is a bit more independent or, dare we say, stubborn? “I believe every cat is trainable if you find something that drives it,’’ says Fields-Babineau. “Every living creature has a certain reward it’ll do anything for.”

Kim Boatman is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Daily Catbased in Northern California whose work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals and shares her home with three cats.

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Posted on July 13, 2008

Terry says: He is an indoor-outdoor cat and has recently started meowing loudly, almost as if he's in pain. But when I pick him up he purrs and rubs against me. Is it possible he is calling out to another cat in the neighborhood?

Posted on July 16, 2008

jess says: that is so cute! how did you teach it to do that?

Posted on July 12, 2008

Heather says: My 4 year old cat, Mort, can sit on command. Of course, he was raised with my mom's 3 big dogs! He also mimicks the cadence of the word "water"... whenever I'm near a sink, he "meows" water, jumps onto the sink and waits for me to turn on the faucet!

Posted on July 8, 2008

Mr says: Placing a morsel of food just at the base of your penis trains your kitty to give you a fantastic stroking experience

Posted on July 9, 2008

trish says: I have 2 females they are 16 months old and are sisters. They got out once for about 1/2 hour, when they came back in they hated each other. this is very disturbing considering they were inseperable. They are being seperated at the moment, but each time I let them out they hiss and fight with each other. What can I do about this? Help, crazed in kittyville.

Posted on July 7, 2008

amona says: my cats are adults ,but love kneeding on my belly legs etc. why do they do this?

Posted on July 5, 2008

Leroy says: my cat stares at me a lot, and I would like to know is this normal behavior, and if so what is she thinking?

Posted on July 7, 2008

B Gritton says: My guest is visiting us and brought her cat. The cat has a bad habit of doing her business outside of her litter box. How can we get her not to do this? We do not want to let her into any other part of our house because of this habit is not acceptible. Please help. Thanks.

Posted on July 5, 2008

Reni says: Hi, my cat Tiger, is an indoor/outdoor cat. Our house backs to the woods and we've lived here for 6 years. Suddenly, this year my cat started killing small animals and then places them, as if they are fabulous prizes, in what appears to be highly visible areas, about once a week, in the front yard. What can I do to stop this new behavior? HELP!

Posted on May 27, 2008

Beth Damelbert says: Wish I could help. In my experience, hand play typically escalates to rough-housing and biting. You could try negative reinformcent (water, and tap to the nose), but I would be worried that Kiko would develop an aversion to playing with you at all. Just wear some work gloves! :)

Posted on July 1, 2008

Jacquelyn says: My daughter gave me her two cats ages 5 & 7 because she could not control them they were wetting carpeting and furniture. They had to be inside cats there. One cat, Mrgan, sister to a cat I already have. Wendy. is determined to eliminate Wendy. Megan will chase Wendy whenever she is in the house. We live in the mountains of Idaho and have 6.5 acres but that is not enought for the Megan. She must come in and fight with her sister all the time. This had been going on for 3 months. It's gotten to the point that when Wendy sees Megan she now growls. They are both nice cats when they are alone with me and my family, but together they are a cat fight waiting to happen. What can I do to make them get along?

Posted on May 22, 2008

Mika says: I have a persian cat named kiko and he loves to bite. In the morning he would come to you and he would let you pet him but all of a sudden he would just bite you as if he thinks you are trying to play with him. He has obsession with hands, he likes to play with them and I want to be able to train him so he knows that hands are not for biting, any help would be appreciated.

Posted on May 14, 2008

Valerie says: How do you go about toilet training a cat? I really would like to know.

Posted on April 4, 2008

Joe says: My best buddy cat, Sparky, actually knew his name. You could call for him from anywhere in the house and he'd come and look at you with that "what?" look on his face. There used to be a DYI show on t and the electricians name was Sparky. Whenever someone on the show called for the electrician (Sparky), our cat would look up, wondering who called.

Posted on March 18, 2008

Vivienne Marjenberg says: My 2 burmese cats (2 years old) had the biggest fight yesterday they have never done this before , we had to keep them seperated last night and this morning when they saw each other they stsrted spitting and growling once again. HELP what do I do this has never happened before.

Posted on March 17, 2008

angela says: i have a full blooded siamese who if fixed when you pet her she like to bit you hands is that a LOVE bite ir something else and my himalayan is very protective of me and wondering why are they one owner cat.......................

Posted on March 16, 2008

Stef says: I'm going to start toilet training my cats shorty - I have three, none are scared and in fact enjoy playing in it anyways - wish me luck! :-)

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