Yes, you really can train your cat. Just don’t expect it to respond the same way as your dog. Cats have shorter attention spans and will not be motivated to please you the same way as a dog may be. Yet you will be surprised at what your cat can learn to do.
Generally, the younger the cat, the faster and easier the training will be. You can start with a kitten no younger than two months old. With cats, you must use positive training. Do not use physical punishment on your cat – it will only terrify and confuse your cat. (By the way, before you begin training your cat in earnest it is worth learning to understand what your cat is telling you by learning about cat body language.) The well-known animal training academy Karen Pryor Academy offers a complete training program for cats using the clicker method, a training technique using positive reinforcement only.
Here are a few basic techniques. First, find a treat that your cat really loves. It can be a soft cat treat, or small bits of raw meat or fish. Choose a time for the training session when the cat is hungry, like just before a regular meal time. Keep the training sessions short – no more than ten or fifteen minutes long a couple of times each day. It also helps to do the training in a quiet area so the cat is not distracted. The cat is likely to respond better to soft, calm voice tones, similar to what you might use when talking to a young child.
Teach the cat to come when you call it: Sit or stand close to your cat. It may help to place the cat on an elevated surface so you are not looming over it or bending down uncomfortably to reach it. Hold a treat with your thumb and index finger and give it to your cat. Do the same thing again. On the third or fourth time, say the cat’s name, followed by the command word you want to use, such as “come”. Give the treat immediately. If you’re using a clicker, click and treat immediately. Repeat the process. Then move your hand a few inches away. Say the cat’s name and the command word. This time, let the cat reach for the treat. As soon as the cat moves toward you, click, or use a praise word such as “good”, and give the cat the treat. Do it again, moving yourself with the treat a little farther away each time. Eventually, your cat will come when you use the command word. When your cat is responding consistently, don’t give it a treat every time. Reward it with a nice caress and praise words.
Teach the cat to target an object. Place the cat on a table or elevated surface so that it is about your chest level. Hold the treat (and clicker if you’re using one) in one hand. Hold your other hand close to the cat’s nose and point the index finger of that hand near the cat’s nose. As soon as the cat touches your finger with its nose, click or say “good” and give the cat a treat immediately. Repeat that process a few times. You will notice that your cat quickly associates the touching with the treating. Move your finger farther away so the cat has to reach out to touch it. Reward the cat immediately with a click or praise word and a treat. Slowly increase the distance. You can use this targeting technique to teach your cat to go into its travel carrier or to learn more complicated activities.
Teach the cat to sit. Place the cat on a table or elevated surface so that it is about your chest level. Hold the treat with your thumb and index finger close to its face. Let the cat touch it but do not let the cat have it. Slowly raise your hand with the treat up and back, almost sliding the treat up along the top of the cat’s nose and forehead so that the cat tilts its nose in the air to follow the direction of the treat. When the cat lifts its nose and head, it will shift its balance to its rear. Keep moving your hand with the treat over the cat and it will assume a seated position on its own. As soon as its rear end is seated all the way, click or use your praise word and let the cat have the treat. Repeat this again. On the third time, use the command word “sit” as the cat’s rear end touches the surface, and click and treat as soon as it is fully seated. After a few sessions, the cat will get it and begin to respond. Once the cat understands the command, do the training in different locations so the cat does not associate “sit” with one specific location.
You can learn other things to teach your cat. Training your cat is rewarding and good for your cat’s safety and mental health. It also will stimulate your cat and help shy cats develop confidence.