Accelerated cat learning for fun and profit
June 14, 2018 5:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm a cat sitter. What are some cool tricks I can (try to…) teach "my" cats that will make their regular humans go wow?

Assume a grown-up cat of average intelligence and a period of about two weeks – is that even realistic? I'm a live-in sitter, so we can practice throughout the day.
posted by Vesihiisi to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I would definitely do clicker training, and I would pick one simple trick. Maybe a high-five? I think anything you teach a cat will wow their regular humans. Here's more about clicker training cats:
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:09 AM on June 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

High five went very well with my treat motivated Cat.
posted by like_neon at 6:44 AM on June 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

The two most "wow" things anyone could train my cat to do would be: 1. stop knocking things off high places on purpose, and 2. stay off the counters and tables.
posted by slkinsey at 6:55 AM on June 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

Way back in the day I taught my cat how to tap twice for a treat, and it only took a weekend. And seriously, my cat was dumb as a pile of carrot peelings, so if could teach her to do that surely any cat could learn.

My progression (I stayed at each point for multiple treat earnings):
- me forcibly putting her paw against the treat bag and then giving her a treat
- putting the treat bag very near her paw and the second she touched it in any way she got a treat and head scritches
- waiting until she put her full paw on the bag before giving her a treat
- making her do it twice before giving her a treat
- making her do it twice quickly to get a treat

BOOM! Tap twice for treats!

Warning: after teaching her this she would tap twice on any similar bag expecting a treat. She never quite got it that it had to be her treat bag.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:59 AM on June 14, 2018 [21 favorites]

The two most "wow" things anyone could train my cat to do would be: 1. stop knocking things off high places on purpose, and 2. stay off the counters and tables.

Off topic but sssscat is pretty incredibly effective at this.
posted by srboisvert at 7:22 AM on June 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I taught my super dumb cat to high five in about a week, via clicker training. (She is so dumb that for a while after I taught her, I'd come into a room to find her high fiving the furniture.)
posted by lollusc at 8:12 AM on June 14, 2018 [24 favorites]

I trained my cat to stand up on his hind legs when I said his name followed by the word "stand". Also, to shake paws/hands. The method that PuppetMcSockerson outlines is basically what I did. For standing, I would hold a treat above his head and say catname+"stand" until he sat back on his hindquarters to sniff it, then I would give him the treat. Slowly it became just me saying catname+"stand" and if he sat back and raised his paws in the air, he got the treat. It took him a month though to get to the latter stage. After that, he would "stand" whenever he wanted food. And he ended up getting a lot of food from sympathetic dinner party attendees.
posted by BeHereNow at 8:15 AM on June 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I taught my mom's cat to touch a target object with his paw in about 20 minutes. Clicker training is incredibly effective if your rewards are high-value enough. One fun thing you can do if you're just hanging around with cats is 101 Things To Do With a Box, (you can replace "box" with any novel object).
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:17 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some (dumb) cats may only have the capacity for one trick though. I've tried to teach my cat other things since the high five training, like touching targets, jumping through a hoop etc. But she just high fives the targets or the hoop. Choose wisely.
posted by lollusc at 8:30 AM on June 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

If you can teach them to sit quietly on a stool, chair, or other well-defined location in the kitchen while you prepare food, the dividends are _enormous_ - cats underfoot are not that fun, and can be a serious hazard to people who, for example, might break a hip if they trip and fall. Of course the hazard to the cat from possibly being stepped on is serious too.

I've also taught cats to run up or down stairs ahead of me instead of being underfoot. Similar benefits X 10 -- tripping on stairs is a big deal.

The kitchen stool sit, though, is also adorable and lovely to demonstrate.

These are both covered in the book I keep recommending, over and over: Clicker Training for Cats. It's a tiny book written by a former dolphin trainer and it's really great.

*** Make sure you communicate to the cat's people that reinforcing this new training is important. Not just because it's cute and fun! Also, because it's really good for the cat to have his/her new "language" of do this-get response/treat/praise continue to work. If the "language" suddenly stops working, it's probably not the worst thing in the world, but it breaks my heart a little to think of the cat constantly doing "Marco" and never ever getting "Polo" back.
posted by amtho at 9:46 AM on June 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I taught my old cat how to "shake hands" for a treat, which he was great at except for the part where he interpreted "shaking hands" as pawing at any exposed flesh within reach. So in the middle of the night I'd wake up to find him sitting on my chest, shaking hands with my face because he wanted a treat.

If this is not your cat, you may want to stick to a trick that's less likely to backfire, like a simple 'sit'. Or something that involves a prop which can be put away, like jumping through a hoop.
posted by Gortuk at 10:09 AM on June 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

I taught my cat to play fetch. I got a white plastic shopping bag & kept tying it into knots until it was a small soft ball, cats really like the texture & they are easy to pick up. I played throw with it for a few days, he really loved the game, when he started carrying the ball, click & treat (oh yeah spend a few days priming your cat with clicker training they catch on super fast), carrying the ball toward me click & treat, then just kept making him bring it closer to get the click & the treat. To be honest once he realized he could get me to throw it by bringing it that was it's own reward & the clicker dropped by the wayside, I just had to get the idea into his head by shaping his behaviour with the clicker. All up probably took 2 weeks.
posted by wwax at 10:54 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I got a white plastic shopping bag & kept tying it into knots until it was a small soft ball,

Some cats, like my guy, have an unhealthy obsession with eating soft plastic like shopping bags, so be careful with this suggestion.

I also feel like there is not nearly enough cat tax being paid in this thread.
posted by Preserver at 11:11 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's an AskMe from only a month ago with ideas.

(Edit: Cat tax with bonus best-friend basset tax)
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:21 AM on June 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm a jerk, but I don't think it would be cool to train someone's cat to do something without consent of the cat's parents.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 11:21 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's almost impossible to train a cat to NOT do something. Get Karen Pryors Clicker Training For Cats from the libraray. It a very thin book, but it gives you the basics. For example, the first trick should include some sort of props since that will be the trick the cat defaults to. No prop no trick. Using sit as the first trick will backfire.
posted by Ferrari328 at 2:36 PM on June 14, 2018

I am extremely disappointed that there aren't more photos/video evidence of all the cool tricks people have (purportedly) taught their cats.

I'm not sure I'd be thrilled if my cat sitter taught my cat any tricks (see aforementioned "will now tap/claw random things" anecdotes) unless that trick was more along the lines of "play with the cool toys I already bought you instead of ignoring them after a few sessions."
posted by TwoStride at 3:34 PM on June 14, 2018

There's a video of mine here demonstrating coming when called, high fiving, high fiving a hoop, and eventually jumping through it.
posted by lollusc at 4:12 PM on June 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's almost impossible to train a cat to NOT do something.

You can often just teach them to do something else instead. So, if a cat has a habit of running for the door whenever you come home in the evening, you can train them to run to a certain chair or stool for a treat instead. If they tend to weave through your feet when you go down the stairs, you can train them to run ahead of you (so you don't trip on them) instead.
posted by amtho at 8:27 PM on June 14, 2018

Our two know their names and come when they're called if they think there is something in it for them. They can also sit and one now has the hang of meerkatting/ up. I'm not sure why the other cat hasn't figured it out yet since she's the smart one and can see her brother being rewarded for it. I'm thinking of trying to teach down and roll over next.

Nthing the Karen Pryor book.
posted by poxandplague at 2:31 AM on June 15, 2018

My cat trained me to do nose kisses on arrival and departure. I'd bend down to put on shoes and she'd raise up and boop my nose and then again when I got home and took them off. Once she was sure I understood she would stand on furniture near the door and meow loudly when I entered expecting her kiss. Being a verbal creature, albeit shockingly unable to speak meoweese fluently, I added the command 'kiss!' so now if I want one at another time I can bend down and say kiss! and I get my nose kiss.

But I never would have thought it was a thing she'd do if she hadn't trained me first.
posted by kitten magic at 3:12 AM on June 15, 2018 [11 favorites]

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