Constructing a training plan

People know that dogs can be trained, but think the opposite of cats. While we walk dogs, play with them and teach them tricks, we throw cats outside and leave them to their own devices. Yet, there is no reason why you cannot train a cat. In fact, it’s better for your cat if you do.

Training a cat to use a carrier has been proven to reduce stress when going to the vet. Studies also show that training cats in a shelter enriches their lives and often results in quicker adoptions. In a 2017 study, researchers trained 100 shelter cats in 15, five-minute training sessions over two weeks. By the end of the study period, 79% of cats mastered the ability to touch a target, 27% mastered sitting, 60% mastered spinning, and 31% got high-fiving. A cat’s age and sex did not affect successful learning, but temperament did – bolder cats at post-assessment demonstrated more significant gains in performance scores than shyer ones.

Cats are just as smart as dogs. They can read our emotions and respond to pointing. They’re not dogs. But with patience and reward-based training, we can train cats as successfully as any dog.

Some cats are easier to train than others

Every cat is a unique blend of physical characteristics such as age, sex, health and breed, plus individual personalities, moods and past and present life experiences. So. each cat will respond to training slightly differently. Some cats will be slightly easier to train than others.

According to Jo-Rosie Haffenden and Nando Brown’s book ‘Teach My Cat to Do That’, there are four key attributes that the most trainable cats have:

  • Handler focus: wanting to work with their human partner, as a team.
  • Optimism: the right cat will always assume it can win. This helps with a ‘keep going’ attitude, which ensures they will enjoy the little puzzles that trick training will present.
  • A bold attitude: this is about more than just confidence; it’s about curiosity and a desire to explore new opportunities.
  • Food motivation: a drive to work for food is going to make training faster and simpler for our feline friends.

The book describes several exercises that will help you identify your cat’s level of strength in each area.

I struck lucky with Chloe. Her temperament and personal characteristics are perfect.

Setting yourself up for success

For cats, successful training relies on rewarding desired behaviour and ignoring the unwanted.

Cats learn best when they feel comfortable: not too thirsty, not too hot or cold, not too tired nor in need of relieving their bladder or bowels. Also, don’t train immediately after food. A certain degree of hunger is needed before a food treat becomes rewarding. And mix the treats up before the cat has had enough of any one type.

A cat will do something only if it feels like it. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends no more than two ‘cat training sessions a day, for five minutes or less, during which you should repeat the behaviour up to 20 times.

Never, ever, punish your cat. You will likely destroy your relationship with them. Also, be patient.

Foundational skills

I recommend starting with the nine foundational skills that John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis detail in their book ‘The Trainable Cat’:

  1. Reward spontaneous observation and exploration
  2. Gently, gently, one sense at a time — systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning
  3. Luring
  4. Marking a behaviour
  5. Touch-release-reward
  6. Teaching relaxation
  7. Collecting a cat’s scent
  8. Maintaining a taught behaviour
  9. The end is near – how to finish any training task

Lead with your cat’s wellbeing

Having mastered the foundational skills, combine them to benefit the wellbeing of your cat:

  • Becoming accustomed to noises such as the vacuum cleaner
  • Being comfortable with a carrier and going to the vet
  • Allowing grooming, teeth cleaning, pill taking, and nail trimming
One of the first things I taught Chloe was to sit on this, um, mouse mat so she didn’t get under my feet while I was sorting her food. I haven’t accidentally trodden on her since.

Autism assistance training

In the USA, an assistance dog requires training in at least three tasks that mitigate or help the challenges of a person’s disability. These skills provide emotional and necessary practical support in day-to-day activities. There is no formal requirement for a specific number of tasks in the UK, but many assistance dog charities have adopted similar rules. In my view, the number of tasks is relatively meaningless and leads to dogs being trained to complete certain tasks just to meet a requirement and not to directly benefit the handler.

Skills should suit the handler and the cat

Potential skills may be dependent on the cat itself. Chloe is a small cat, weighing under 5kg. Consequently, I carry her almost everywhere we go. A larger breed such as a Maine Coon or Savannah may be more suitable for walking on a harness and leash. They may also be capable of additional tasks such as picking up dropped items.

As cats prioritise place over people, training is likely to be more successful if undertaken by the disabled person themselves in an environment where the animal is comfortable.

Untrained behaviours may be more important

A 2020 USA study reveals that psychiatric service dog owners rate untrained behaviours higher than trained tasks for helping with PTSD symptoms. However, while some animals may naturally perform a behaviour, training is needed to transform it into something the animal will do immediately on command, at any location and regardless of distractions.

Yes, sometimes untrained behaviours may be more important.


Further reading