training a cranky cat
March 13, 2021 4:54 AM   Subscribe

Our cat is getting increasingly grumpy with old age (he turns 11 this year). He has always been prone to scratching, but it's gotten worse and now he frequently scratches when we try to pick him up to move him from a place he's not supposed to be. I want to train him to go to a specific spot so we don't have to physically move him.

He is an incredibly smart and food-motivated cat. His favorite hobby is hiding somewhere we don't want him, like under our bed, so that we will have to lure him out by rattling the treat box. I want to train him, using a clicker or a command, to go sit in a spot in the kitchen to wait for a treat. I'm not sure how to get him to do this rather than just following the person with the treats around, meowing. Is this how clicker training could help? Please advise, he is wearing on our patience with his scratching.
posted by chaiminda to Pets & Animals (6 answers total)
Best answer: Is sitting in that spot in the kitchen something he does on his own sometimes, or something he is likely to do if you go stand near the spot with some treats? If so, that simplifies things. Wait for him to sit there, or do whatever would encourage him to sit there, and give him a treat every time he does it. Every single time, at first. Don't try to get him to go the spot from another room at first, just be there in the kitchen with him and reward him when he sits in the right spot. Once he's gotten rewarded for sitting there enough times, he'll realize that sitting there means a reward. If you can get him to do it over and over again for 15 minutes he may reach that point in 15 minutes. If he's not cooperative and you have to wait for the 2 or 3 times a day he happens to go that spot on his own it may take a couple of weeks.

Eventually you should reach a point where he, on his own with no prompting, keeps going to the spot and waiting expectantly for a treat. Once you're seeing that, you can introduce a command or signal that means he should go sit in his spot. (If he doesn't seem very tuned in to specific words, a distinctive sound might work better.) Give the signal as he's starting to sit in his spot or just before you know he's going to sit there so he can start associating it with the behavior. Then start giving him the treat only when you have first signaled him to go to his spot, not when he just does it on his own. He should be excited when he hears the signal because it means he has the chance to earn a treat. At first you'll just be giving him the signal when he's close to his spot but gradually start doing it from further and further away.

If you want to use a clicker, here's how it works. First, you teach him that a click means he's going to get a treat. You repeatedly click and toss him a treat, click and toss him a treat until you see that when he hears the click he's looking for the treat. Now that he knows a click means he's about to get a treat, you can use the click to mark the moment when he does a thing you want. So whenever he sits in his spot in the kitchen you would click and then give him a treat. The click isn't a signal to do anything and it doesn't substitute for a treat. It's just a good way to mark the exact moment he does the thing you want, since you can click faster than you can hand him a treat. If this is the only thing you ever want to train your cat to do, it may or may not be worth using a clicker.

What if sitting in that spot in the kitchen is not something he ever does now and not something you can somehow lure him into doing? Then you're going to have to gradually shape the behavior you want. Here's where a clicker might help, but you can make it work without one too. Hopefully you can at least get him to go to that general area. Reward when he does. Gradually narrow down the spot he has to be in to get the reward. If remaining still in that spot is an important part of what you want, start only rewarding the times when he's still for 2 seconds, then a little longer, then a little longer.

I have zero experience training cats, so I don't know how long this ought to take. With a dog, I would expect 20 minutes of practice would have him understanding that sitting in his spot would earn him a treat and after a week of daily practice he would go to his spot on command from another room in the house.
posted by Redstart at 6:05 AM on March 13, 2021

Best answer: Put down a square? Cat sits in square, cat gets treat.
posted by prewar lemonade at 6:38 AM on March 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is it possible that something hurts and that's why your cat is getting grumpier? One of my cats has arthritis and had bad teeth/gums and she was getting surlier and surlier as time went on. After diagnosing the arthritis and giving her gabapentin, and dealing with her teeth, she's back to her old (still grumpy, but also full of snuggles) self.

To your question, the trick is to establish a routine. When I make lunch, the cats get a snack - so around 11:30, 11:45 the cats start roaming towards the kitchen. If I happen to go into the kitchen around 10:30 or 11 they speed in there hoping for snacks.

At night, they get a treat when they go to the bedroom. They very happily follow me to their assigned places to get their treats.

In my experience it only takes about a week to establish a behavior like that, but all cats are different.
posted by jzb at 6:39 AM on March 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Touch training is what you want. Basically you want to clicker train him to touch the end of a stick with it's nose or a paw, say a chopstick or something then move the stick further and further away so he has to move to touch it and get the treat. It is one of the basic first steps in training any animal to do a trick and should be easily done. You can train gold fish to do it, so even a stubborn cat should get it.

Also I'd suggest if you can getting the cat checked out by the vet, it could be aches and pains of aging causing the problem and there are a lot of good meds out there for animals now a days to help. If nothing else that would make the training easier as a painfree cat is a cat that wants to learn new things.
posted by wwax at 9:39 AM on March 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Second both the clicker training and the vet. Get Karen Pryor's Clicker Training for Cats from the library. It gives you the basics. Cats love to learn if there are treats involved.
posted by Ferrari328 at 10:16 AM on March 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

"place he's not supposed to be"

no such thing with a cat

You can't discourage a cat from being somewhere they want to be, so if you don't want them to be there then you have to provide a bunch of alternate locations that they vastly prefer, e.g., boxes with warm fuzzy blankets everywhere
posted by Jacqueline at 4:05 PM on March 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

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