They say cats aren't trainable. And well, let's face it, for the most part our kitties are better at training us instead of the other way around. The thing is that they work differently than we do - which is more akin to how dogs are motivated and see the world, making it more second nature for us to train them than cats. But that doesn't mean they cannot be trained - they're eminently opportunistic, smart and highly motivated to enhance their quality of life. And it is exactly that quality that makes training them a piece of cake.
So let's start off easy. How do you train your kitty to come in? After all, the applications of this kind of simple command are infinite - especially with outdoor fur balls. Think of all the times you might have to medicate your kitty in the future, get them ready for the vet or simply get them inside for the night. Or for that matter- what if they don't show up for a day or so and you get worried as to what might've happened to them. How handy would it be to be able to just...call them in for a check up?
Step 1: the prep work
Just to make it easy for future practice sessions and make the cat as comfortable as possible so they can fully focus on you, pick a spot that they would naturally be at during the day to train them. Bring a bell and treats. Remove distractions such as kids, family members or other pets.
Pet them, to reassure them that nothing bad is going to happen and feed them one of the treats you brought. If need be, split the treats into several pieces. Even the smallest piece will act as a reward and you do not want the animal to become overly stuffed while you're still training. For the best possible results, use a specific treat they never get otherwise which you know they love. Make it the treat that they only get for displaying the desired behaviour. Alternatively, depending on what motivates your pet most, go for a special toy or affection and attention.
The reason for the bell is because it will carry further throughout the neighbourhood than your voice, increasing the likelihood and the distance at which your pet will be able to hear the call. Meanwhile, it's a fun little nudge at Pavlov, who discovered that this type of conditioning in animals was possible.
Step 2: consistent rewarding in a comfortable spot
Now, first ring the bell, then instantly feed them the treat. Repeat this until the cat starts anticipating the treat at the sound of the bell. The goal is to get them to associate the sound of the bell with the coming of food. Keep training sessions within 10 minutes and stop the training once you notice that they're either no longer interested in the treats or too distracted to continue. Continuing the training in spite of these symptoms will only cause aggravation and bad associations on both sides which is counterproductive to our goal. Stay patient - especially older cats can take up to 20 times or more to get the hang of something like this.
Once you notice they've caught on, extend the duration between the sound of the bell and the feeding of the treat to prep them for the delay between hearing the bell and getting the treat when they are making their way to you. Again, you're looking for them to be entirely focused on the treat once they hear the bell before you move on to the next step
Step 3: increasing the distance
All right, time to take advantage of those extra moments you bought yourself by delaying your kitty's gratification. Ring the bell and feed them the treat. Then move away one step and ring it again, rewarding them when they come running. Continue to increase the distance, to the point where you are out of their line of sight and they have to track you down.
You should find that the further you get into this process, the easier it will be to teach your cat the next step and the more eager they'll be the part take.
Now - and this may seem counter intuitive - if you really want to ingrain this behaviour, you start inconsistently rewarding them. That's right. Reward them sometimes, and don't at other times. What this does is make the cat work harder for their reward. Think about it - if something becomes too predictable and too easy, you start taking things for granted. You know it is there if you want it. But if it's not always as predictable, things stay exciting. You may or may not get a treat - and that is worth finding out. Also, you may not get one tomorrow, so you might as well get all the treats you can today. However, if you do this too early, it'll undermine their confidence and belief in being able to achieve their goal, hence the consistent rewarding in the beginning.
By the way, this is the reason that many problem behaviours come into being and are so hard to ignore or exterminate - people behave inconsistently and provide cats without realising it with inconsistent rewards, making it all the harder to ignore them when they work even harder to annoy their owners into giving them their way. This is how cats are brilliant at training their owners. Think of all those times that you've petted your cat at night just to shut them up, to the point where you got fed up and tried ignoring them or shouting at them instead.
It is known as interval training and cements the behaviour into the mind of the cat as worthwhile to perform, making it that much harder to 'untrain'.
Step 4: bringing it home
So now you have a kitty that will follow you anywhere in the house, provided you have treats. Yay! Time to start over completely. Yup, completely.
It's time to take them out of their comfortable environment and start practicing this in different locations - outside or places with family members and other pets present, if you wish (warning - they will figure out what is going on and demand to be included! You could even train them to each have their own bell that sounds differently.)
Go back to the previous two steps and go through them again, in these locations. Start with consistently rewarding again, to keep their focus while amidst distractions, increase the distance to the point of out of line of sight and only then move over to interval training. This should go relatively quick compared to the previous two steps.
This entire process will take anywhere from a day or two to a week, depending on how smooth you make it for them to grasp, how old they are, how distracted they get, how smart they are and how motivated they are by what you're offering. If they aren't grasping it, you're probably going too fast and should back up a step, maybe even going back to the consistent stage. Most people rush through the first stage as it doesn't look that impressive.
If properly motivated in the right conditions though, cats tend to -in general- be really quick about seeing the benefit in this for them.
You now have a kitty that will come at the sound of your bell. And wow, does it have many uses. However - there are some important things to keep in mind still:
- While interval training will make them more resistant to this, not rewarding your cat at all will eventually 'untrain' the cat.
- Keep in mind that consistently robbing a cat of its freedom by calling it inside at night without providing it with a pleasurable alternative - such as a treat - will train it that your bell isn't worth it.
- Only using this trick for disgusting medication without additional treats before and after the medication is going to make the cat think twice as well.
In essence, think of what you re calling the cat for. Ask yourself if the cat would enjoy what you're about to do to it. Sweeten the deal if they won't. And don't forget to use the trick on occasion just to provide them with affection or even just to realise that the bell doesn't automatically come with a downside each time as well.
Enjoy your perfectly trained kitty!
Who said that cats are impossible to train? ;)