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How to Train Cats

It is a little-appreciated fact that cats -- whom we tend to think of as willful, independent, and impervious to reason -- can learn to respond to our commands as well as dogs do.
Body+Soul, June 2010

British author and poet Rudyard Kipling pretty much summed up people's perception of cats in his story titled "The Cat That Walked by Himself." Independent, aloof, and self-sufficient are terms that people who don't know cats gladly assign to them. But cats are far more than that. They're more social than we might imagine and can even be trained. The key is to find out what reward will really float their boat: A pat on the head or a "Good boy!" probably won't do it. I trained my cat Cinder to sit on command, using food treats and a clicker.

Tasty Rewards
Food is a powerful motivator, especially when paired with a secondary reinforcer like a clicking sound. The idea is that the cat will learn to associate one with the other, a theory you see in action when your cat comes charging after she hears you pop open a can of tuna. If a behavior earns a click and the click means food, your cat will perform that behavior more often. Later, you can add a voice cue: For instance, "sit" means performing that behavior will generate a click, and the click means food is coming.

Psychologists Marian and Keller Breland, pioneers of animal training, discovered the power of secondary reinforcement when they used clickers to train pigs to put coins in a bank, ducks to play a piano, and reindeers to run a printing press.

I used the same technique with Cinder: I'd wait for her to offer me a behavior, like sitting, and then click to signal a job well done and a reward to come. Finally, I'd click and reward her only when she sat after hearing "Sit!" It took a few minutes of training for a few days before she'd do it reliably, but once the command was locked in, she never forgot it; years later, she'd sit when I asked, even without a treat or clicker.

Magic Tricks
There are also more practical reasons to train a cat: We taught Cinder to come when called, which spared her many predicaments when we let her outside -- only when we were around, of course -- on sunny days.

I heard about one grad student who clicker-trained his cat to step on a pink rubber strip, the remains of a busted balloon. The cue words were "touch it." The student moved the strip across the floor, then onto a chair, and finally over a pressure-sensitive light switch. Eventually the student could climb into bed at night and say "touch it" to get his cat to bound across the floor, jump up on the chair, and hit the switch, turning off the light. And, yes, you guessed it, right after the light went out there was a click, and the student tossed over a treat. The student said the best thing was that he and his cat found new respect for each other; the communication actually enhanced their relationship. So training doesn't have to be demeaning for a cat; it can be life-enhancing or even empowering. Think about it this way: A cat can make his owner click and produce treats by engaging in a behavior. That's control! Clicker-trained cats probably think they're training us.

Beautiful Minds
Training reveals how immensely intelligent cats are. I once went to a cat agility contest in Arlington, Texas, where enthusiastic cat aficionados ran around an obstacle course waving tinsel wands in front of their cats. The cats chased the wands in, over, or around weave poles (like kitty slalom). At first, I thought the cats were simply chasing the shiny objects -- but when a few of them completed the circuit on their own after only a couple of run-throughs, I realized they'd learned the sequence. That takes smarts and memory. We fail to appreciate what cats can accomplish, and our paltry expectations lead us to reap what we sow.

We knew each other well, Cinder and I, and the fact that we could communicate made our relationship even more special. Unfortunately, she passed away at the ripe old age of 21, but she had a wonderful life, and I'll never forget her -- just the way she never forgot how to sit when asked.