Cat Training Guide for Beginners - Train Your Cat from Zero to Hero
When I tell people I train cats for a living I can see the doubt in their eyes. They look at me like I just woke up from anesthesia and I'm speaking nonsense.
Cat training is very possible and with this easy-to-follow guide, you'll be able to train your cat even if you are a new cat parent.
Cat training is a thing and can help cat parents correct behavioral problems, teach obedience skills and discipline, and even tricks that will make your cat the envy of your friends. To me, though, the most important thing about training your cat is that you are going to improve your communication with them in ways you never thought were possible.
Cat training is the most rewarding, fun and enriching activity you can do with your furry companion.
There are 7 Levels of Cat Tricks
Not all tricks are created equal. Some cat tricks or obedience training is going to be harder than others. In the video below you can see how hard can Cat Tricks get and what it takes to teach them to your cat.
Why is it Important to Train a Cat?
I was told since I was very little that dogs were hard work and cats were low-maintenance animals. They also told me that cats were independent and did not care about their owners. Oh! Someone also told me once that cats were not smart and they were boring.
Well, none of the above is true.
Cats Will Appreciate Mental Stimulation
When paired with a primary reinforcer, usually food, training is going to be very much appreciated by your cat. In nature, your cat "works" for their food. Despite the work and reward in nature being different than training, your cat was designed to seek the reinforcement that comes from hunting.
Cats experience fewer emotions than humans but studies have proven that they experience at least 6: 4 Main Emotions and 2 Predictive Emotions.
Main Emotions on Cats
- Fear (Negative Emotion) - Threat immediately present, for example, a dog.
- Frustration (Negative Emotion) - Environment not meeting their needs, like not being able to get down from a tree.
- Pleasure (Positive Emotion) - Enjoyable feeling, when eating or getting pets.
- Relief (Positive Emotion) - Cease of discomfort, when a door that was closed is opened.
Predictive Emotions on Cats
- Anxiety (Negative Emotion) - Anticipation of something fearful, like separation anxiety when you go on vacation or riding by car to the vet.
- Anticipation (Positive Emotion) - Anticipation of something pleasurable, like when hunting to eat.
Dopamine is released in a cat's brain as a result of a feeling of eager anticipation.
Your cat's brain will release dopamine when hunting the same that they will release dopamine when training for treats or pets. These dopamine releases will make it less likely for your cat to feel bored, anxious, or depressed.
Training Your Cat is an Opportunity to Bond
By training your cat, they will learn to look up to you for directions. Training will make the feeding time a proactive activity on your end instead of a begging necessity for them.
Regardless of a cat's breed, size, or age, they can benefit from training.
Whether your training goal for your cat is to have a high-scoring obedience competitor or a well-mannered cat that knows the boundaries at home, a stronger bond will stem from positive reinforcement training.
We live busy lives and even those working from home and spending loads of time with the cat, we don't spend much quality time with them.
Training is a moment on the day when both cat and human are paying full attention to each other.
Because cats appreciate routine, setting aside a few minutes each day for formal training sessions. If you want a head start, consider taking cat training classes with us to learn the basics faster.
In addition to the formal training, remember that every interaction with your cat is a training opportunity. For instance, every time I come back home from a walk with my cat, I release her from the leash and let her run indoors on her own, rewarding her after. This way, I encourage her to come back home whenever she's off-leash, in case she got lost.
Training Your Cat Will Help You Understand Them
Cats subtle body language is most of what they use when then communicate with their own species. They also use pheromones as an invisible secret language that only other cats can perceive.
Cats only meow as kittens, as a means to communicate with their moms. Domestic cats consider us their caregivers and they continue using their vocalizations as a means to call our attention and letting us know what they need. The problem is that we don't have a language that they can understand, well, we do.
Today there are two ways in which we can communicate with our cats:
- Positive reinforcement and clicker training to reinforce behaviors
- Talking buttons, which are a form of assistive language technology
Training your cat will give you the tools to speak a language your cat can understand. This for me, is worth every minute I spend training my bengal cat Mia.
Correcting Unwanted Behavior is Easy in Trained Cats
once you've learned to speak a language your cat can understand, it becomes easier to reward and correct behavior.
For instance, using clicker training you can teach no to your cat and once they've learned it, if you pair stopping a behavior with a treat, you'll have the means to stopping your cat from doing things that are against your house rules or flat out dangerous.
How Do You Train a Cat?
Training a cat like any other mamal (even birds) is done using operant conditioning. Operant conditioning was first discovered by B.F. Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) and his students. To study operant conditioning, he invented a machine to prove the principles of the technique, the machine is known as Skinner box, althought the official name is Opperant Conditioning Chamber.
According to Wikipedia:
Operant conditioning (also called instrumental conditioning) is a type of associative learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment.
In my words, which might be a little easier to understand:
Operant conditioning is the process of shape behavior by linking that behavior with positive or negative emotions.
Behavior will trigger different types of consequences, there's a total of five:
- Positive Reinforcement: A behavior is followed by a rewarding stimulus (like a treat), increasing the frequency of that behavior.
- Negative Reinforcement: A behavior is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus (like lifting the foot after you step on your cat's tail), increasing the behavior.
- Positive Punishment: Occurs when a behavior is followed by an aversive stimulus (like hitting or yelling) which, often, results in descourages the behavior.
- Negative Punishment: When a behavior is followed by removal of a rewarding stimulus (closing your hand with treats making them unaccessible), resulting in a reduction of the behavior.
- Extinction: When a behavior that was rewarded stops being rewarded, the behavior will likely reduce and eventually stop. This is important as people always ask me when can they stop using treats when training their cats.
The 2 training systems that are more extended are Clicker Training and Talking Buttons. In this article I want to cover all about clicker training but you can check our guide to teach talking with buttons to your cat.
What's Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a form of Positive Reinforcement (Opperant Conditioning) that uses a secondary reinforcer to bridge the gap between the behavior that we want to see repeated and the reward for that behavior.
Because marking exactly the behavior with food is hard (the cat does lots of things all the time and they won't know what it was that triggered the reward) we link the primary reinforcer (treat) with a secondary reinforcer (click sound).
By doing this pairing, which is called charging the clicker, the secondary reinforcer (clicker) will become as reinforcing as the primary reinforcer (treats). Think about money for example: Money can not be eaten, provide shelter or produce offsprings but we value money to the point that it shapes our behavior. Money is to humans what the sound of the clicker is to cats.
Are Cats Hard to Train?
I have a full article talking about cats being hard to train or not. Short answer is no. Cats are not hard to train. If you use a dog as a benchmark for the comparison, the main difference between training a cat vs. training a dog is that cats are more independent and less food motivated.
This does not mean by any means that you can not succeed at training your cat. Cats are easier to train than most people think. The problem... someone told us that cats don't listen and because of that most people don't even try.
What Do I Need to Train a Cat?
Training cats is not very complex from a materialistic point of view either. You only will need 3 things to train a cat:
A Clicker Training Clicker
The clicker is a mechanical noise maker. Some people call them crickets.
The story of the clicker is very curious, clickers were used first as toys, then as a military tool so that paratroopers could locate each other without adverting the enemies (with a sound that would sound a little like an animal). B.F. Skinner during his studies about opperant conditioning and positive reinforcement was the first to publicly use a clicker as a marker with a dog.
This markers are cheap and they can be bought on Amazon or any pet store.
Cat Treats Your Cat Can't Resist for Clicker Training
Imagine that after dinner a friend comes to you and offers you a piece of brocoli if you complete a set of 20. How likely are you to even try to do the stunt?
Because we are going to be using food as a reinforcer you will need two things:
- Stop FREE Feeding your cat: If your cat has unlimited free access to food, is going to be hard that they value any treat you offer them, because they are not going to be hungry at all.
- Find a treat that your cat goes CRAZY for: We all have favorite food, and your cat does as well. Freezed dried chicken is many cat's favorite but it can be a little pricey. Get to know what works with your cat by trying different treats.
Now imagine that you are slightly hungry and your friend offers you to go to your favorite pizza place if you finish 20 pushups. Even if you are not good at doing pushups, you'll be thinking of ways to get it done so that you can enjoy a FREE pizza.
Your cat is no different than you: Stop free-feeding and offer a reward they love and they'll listen!
Sometimes I am asked how to train a cat that's not food motivated. My take it's that cats are programmed to be food motivated, so there's something wrong in that statement or the reasons causing your cat to not be motivated by the treats you are offering. There's a bunch of other tricks that will help you train your cat faster, but that's a topic for another day.
Getting your cat to perform a trick like sit can be done in 2 or 3 sessions. Clicker training has the benefit of making it very easy to shape behavior
Why do you need patience then?
One of the things I get asked the most is how long does it take to train your cat and I think that this is the wrong question to ask. Cat training is like being healthy or being fit, or being wealthy. It's not about the end destination, is about the lifestyle and the choices you make every day.
You will need patience because as you teach your cat more difficult tricks, your cat might take up to 30 or even 40 seconds to think, process and execute a trick.
Also, a cat that listens and behaves is a cat that has learned to look up to you for help when they face a new situation, or will make an effort to understand what are you trying to say on any given moment (they still might choose to ignore you, after all, they are cats).
Can You Train a Cat to Do Tricks?
Cats can totally learn to perform tricks. In some instances, cats are going to be better than dogs at performing certain tricks.
You can even teach your cat to ride on a bike with you. There are a total of 7 levels of cat training, each of them of increasing difficulty:
Level 1: Creating Routines
Level 2: Luring
Level 3: Luring and Marking
Level 4: Shaping
Level 5: Stopping Natural Impulses
Level 6: Desensitization
Level 7: Obedience with Competing Stimuli
How Do I Start Training a Cat?
There are 2 things you have to totally do if you are planning on training your cat:
1) Join our Cat Training YouTube Channel
I post weekly content on our OutdoorBengal YouTube Channel about clicker training, cat behavior, correcting cat behavior and adventuring with cats.
It's a great way to stay informed on a consistent basis and it's FREE!
2) Follow the 3 Step Cat Clicker Training Video
Learning clicker training is fairly simple, particularly if you follow these 3 steps:
The process to teach a cat clicker training is fairly simple, the video above explains it in less than 6minutes, but to put it on text for you that can't watch a video because you are at work (I am not judging) here's the process:
Charge the clicker: To achieve this you have to click and give a treat right after. Repeating this process for 10, 20 times should be enough to get your cat looking for a treat after a click. When that happens, you can consider the clicker is charged.
Click and Reward to see behaviors more often: Now that your cat understands the sound of the clicker as your way to say "good job", and the fact that they are getting rewarded by that "good job" your cat/s are going to start engaging more in that particular behavior.
What Tricks Can I Teach My Cat?
Teach Your Cat to Finger Targetting
This is the 1st trick you should teach your cat. It's the beginning of many tricks that will come afterwards.
Finger Targetting is taught using luring: Place a treat between your middle finger and your thumb. Let your cat notice it. As your cat approached the treat, move your index finger up and down. When your cat touches your index finger, click, then reward. Your cat is going to create the association between index moving up and down and the treat.
You just taught your cat to come on command!
Teach Your Cat to Sit
Teaching your cat to sit is one of the first tricks you should teach your cat. It usually takes a cat 1 or 2 sessions after the clicker is charged to learn to sit on command.
There are 2 ways to teach your cat to sit:
- Luring: Hover a treat over your cat's head and once they notice it, move it towards their tail. They will have to sit down to keep the treat on sight. When their butt touches the floor, click, then reward. pull it almost over their vision Pair it with a hand signal and voice cue, and eventually your cat will learn to do it on command.
- Marking: All you have to do is capture your cat's "sit" by clicking and rewarding whenever they do it naturally. As you do that, your cat will increase the frequency of the behavior. Pair it with a hand signal and voice cue, and eventually your cat will learn to do it on command.
Teach Your Cat to Spin
Teaching your cat to sit is the first "useless" trick you can teach your cat.
Spin is taught using luring: With your cat standing, place a treat slightly above their head, on the side. As your cat tries to reach the treat, move it in a way that if they follow, they'll do a circle. Link it with a hand signal and afterwards, with a voice cue for your cat to do it on command.
Teach Your Cat to Jump
Teaching your cat to jump is an example of shaping behavior. It is usually not happening that you'll get your cat to jump on command, you will need to build towards the behavior.
Jumping is going to be taught using a combination of little games. Once the first game is solved and your cat does it on command, you add to it, increasing the difficulty and getting closer to the behavior you want to teach.
Teach your cat to jump using shaping: With your cat standing, place a treat slightly above their head, on the side. As your cat tries to reach the treat, move it in a way that if they follow, they'll do a circle. Link it with a hand signal and afterwards, with a voice cue for your cat to do it on command.
Teach Your Cat to Roll
Teaching your cat to roll can be tricky. Some cats are just not comfortable exposing their belly and it can take a while to get them to learn this trick. For Mia and me this was a trick that took us almost 1 year to master.
There are 2 steps to teach your cat to roll:
- Laying on the floor: We first need our cat to lay on the floor with both front legs extended. To achieve that we can either use marking or luring. Try luring first as it's faster. Sit on the floor and with one leg extended, leave just enough space for your cat to fit between your leg and the floor. Use finger targetting to get your cat crawl under your leg. Because there's no much space, they'll touch the floor with their belly and at that point you can mark the behavior.
- Rolling: Once your cat is comfortable laying down, you can teach them to roll. Grab a treat and place it near your cat's head, almost on their torso, forcing them to tilt the head towards your hand. That movement will trigger a roll. Pair it with a hand signal and voice cue, and eventually your cat will learn to do it on command.
Can I Use Training to Correct Cat Behavior?
One of the main benefits of training your cat is that it can be used to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior.
It's important to understand that a cat that's doing something bad, if told not to do so, and then rewarded, might identify the bad behavior as a trigger for a treat.
The trick to correcting any cat missbehavior is to:
- Understand the root need
- Offer an alternative
- Reinforce the alternative
Stop a Cat from Munching on Your Plants
Stop a Cat from Waking You Up at Night
Stop a Cat from Biting and Scratching
Stop a Cat from Scratching Furniture - Coming Soon
Stop a Cat from Meowing - Coming Soon
My Cat Doesn't Listen
It is fairly common to get your cat to ignore you. This usually doesn't happen when there are no distractions, but when a noise, a new box or a fly enters the room, forget about having your cat's attention.
Competing Stimuli in Cat Training
A reinforcer is anything that immediately follows a behaviour impacts on the frequency of that behaviour in the future. At any one time, there are numerous reinforcers available within your cat's environment.
Competing stimuli or competing reinforcers are elements that distract your cat from paying attention to you and your treats, they can be positive reinforcers (treats, birds, a toy, a box...) or punishing (a threat, pain...)
Animals, particularly cats, always orientate their attention towards the most reinforcing element in their environment.
When you take your cat outdoors, the change in environment offers different reinforcers (birds and bugs to chase) and consequently the value of what we have to offer (treats) is decreased.
Get your cat very comfortable at performing tricks and listening to commands and then try to incorporate competing reinforcers indoors. Try to automate your cat's reaction to your commands so that when there's competing reinforcers, they don't hesitate.
Can You Train a Cat to Walk on a Leash?
Absolutely! You can even train your cat to ride on a bike with you!
To teach your cat to walk on a leash we are going to use positive reinforcement. We are going to pair the harness and all harnesses experiences with somethig good: treats or playtime.
It's a fairly simple process that, if taken with patience, will be extremely rewarding for both you and. your cat.
Make sure you understand the difference between the types of harnesses and that you pick the best harness for your cat.
Introduce the Harness to Your Cat
First, let your cat sniff and get familiar with the harness. After that first exploration, place the harness in an area where your cat is comfortable and has already spread their feromones.
If your cat has a cat tree or a bed, those are good places to put the harness for a week.
This is going to impregnate your recently bought harness, that smells like a campign chairs factory, with your cat pheromones, that are reassuring and make them feel safe.
Desensitize Your Cat to the Harness Indoors
Once they seem curious or comfortable, put it on them for a short period of time while you are around. Give them lots of treats and praise to create a positive association.
Do this a few times a day for a week or two, gradually increasing the amount of time they wear the harness.
Leash Walk Your Cat Indoors
The first walks on a leash should be indoors. Your cat has to get used to having someone pulling from a leash and when starting it can be disorienting and frustrating.
You want your cat to experience those emotions when indoors, in a safe space.
Acclimatation of Your Cat to the Outdoors
Next, it's time to take your cat on a short walk around the block! Start with just a few minutes and work your way up to longer walks as they get more comfortable. Remember to go at your cat's pace and never force them to go for longer than they feel comfortable.
Keeping the first adventures short and sweet will take you longer.
You'll need to decide what type of gear you'll need for your adventure. Different adventures will require different cat adventure gear. If you're going hiking, you'll need a carrier or backpack that is comfortable for both you and your cat and has enough
Stay Wild, Stay Safe, See You Outdoors!
Albert & Mia
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