My cat and I are going to run away and join the circus.
November 13, 2007 5:19 AM   Subscribe

Dogs seem to be easy to train to do tricks, cats, not so. I have taught her to eat treats off the furniture (and she often fluffs that) but not much else. She doesn't respond to commands or perform any tricks on demand. Can you give me hints or tips I might employ to make my cat become a star?
posted by tellurian to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We're not really going to run away and join the circus, but if she did a few tricks, that would be cool (only if she wanted to, of course).
posted by tellurian at 5:34 AM on November 13, 2007

Does fetching count as a trick? My cats love to fetch. (Well, actually, the big one, not so much anymore, since the little one is so overbearing. But that's another story.)

I think they love to chase things so much that once they learn the association between bringing the item back (my cats particularly like shoelaces) and getting to chase it again, they do it all the time. My cats actually bring those damn shoelaces to me all the time and drop them at my feet. All it took was throwing things for them to chase a few times. Eventually they figure out that once it's "dead," they can carry it to me and I'll bring it back to life.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:41 AM on November 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding teaching the cat to fetch. I have no idea how my mom did this, but she did, and now the cat is my newest sibling. Please, please Mom don't be the weird cat lady anymore.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:50 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find that repetition over a long period of time trains them, whether it's on purpose or not. My cat knows what certain cues from my daily routine mean and acts accordingly. For example, the last thing I do every day when getting ready is to spray a little perfume on. When she smells the perfume, she instantly goes to her food dish.

It's all about rewards and consistency. Food, petting and fun are all good rewards. My cat learned how to fetch because she'd get her little kitten claws stuck in the foam balls and she had to come to us to get them unhooked. After doing that repeatedly, she learned that it was fun.

She also learned that if I called her a cute little name that meant she was about to get her belly rubbed. Now whenever I say something to that effect, BAM, she's on her back.

Try playing with putting a little reward-giving into your daily routine. What my cat does isn't exactly rolling over or sitting on command, but I think it can be done. It's just going to take a little more time with cats.
posted by bristolcat at 5:57 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

My cat also plays fetch. When he was younger he'd leap a good 3-4 feet off the ground to catch a ball of tin foil.

He used to come when I snapped my finger but he stopped doing that when his nemesis, The Other Cat, moved in.

I'm told you can toilet train your cat. I bought a book on it and after a couple weeks managed to get him to hop up on the bowl and poop in a small pan of litter that was set inside the toilet. The next step was to remove the pan so he'd poop in the water. After four days of this I discovered he'd been pooping elsewhere in the house. At this point I gave up. YMMV.

Apparently you can also teach them to flush but you can't teach them NOT to flush, so they tend to flush the toilet every three seconds all through the night.

Also, my cat does an amazing trick where, no matter where in the bedroom he jumps from, he can always land with his front paw exerting maximum pressure on my left nut.
posted by bondcliff at 6:05 AM on November 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

--How old is she?
--What actions do you want her to do?
--How long have you had her?
--How much time do you have in a day with her?
--What vocabulary/cues have you already taught her? (And, be honest, what cues has she taught you?)
--Did she instruct you to badger the crazy cat people?

Cats posses mind control, an army of parasitic bouncers to make the host be good, the god-given gift of ventriloquism, a Tupperware salespersonship that would break all records if the distributors would allow cats to compete, and wicked-mean skill at communicating with the undead.

Getting her to perform (or acknowledge that you've asked for) those feats on command is _your_ training, Grasshopper.

Squirt bottle does the trick for me.
For training me, that is.
posted by bonobo at 6:22 AM on November 13, 2007

Cats train you, not the other way around.
posted by signal at 6:23 AM on November 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

Also, my cat does an amazing trick where, no matter where in the bedroom he jumps from, he can always land with his front paw exerting maximum pressure on my left nut.

That's not really a trick, more of an inherited trait.
posted by dmd at 6:24 AM on November 13, 2007

Bend their curiosity to your will. For example, "tap finger on floor, cat comes running, cat gets treat". It's an extension of rattling the food bag. Just be consistent.
posted by Leon at 6:30 AM on November 13, 2007

You could teach your cat to jump through a hoop. Mine loves jumping through his hoop, although I used a different method to teach him -- we started with him jumping between two chair seats, with the hoop between, which makes it less likely that he'll try to go around the hoop. A child's hula hoop works well for this.
posted by amtho at 6:32 AM on November 13, 2007

I have many balls in the backyard that she plays with, variations are: some golf balls, some soft balls (that she carries around in her mouth as well as playing football) and some tennis balls. Sometimes she wants to chase the balls, but often, not. There is also a furry mouse plaything that I have to hide because she is crazy for it, all night long. Can I use this to train her because she's crazy for it (up at all hours, making weird guttural noises and stalking around)?
posted by tellurian at 6:37 AM on November 13, 2007

Re: fetching behavior

Of course I throw things to distract the lovelies to get away from me. The hell-beasts with the catch-a-live-creature-and-present-it-to-the-bipeds instinct lurve fetch with toys. Oddly enough, I never taught them. They just brought the toy/odd live thingy to me when they want to play. Throw it? O' course I do!

Then I tell him/her what a good, mighty kitty he/she is whilst I scratch off any plans of ever enjoying the company of a bird or rodent again while in the company of him/her.

Seriously, re: training...

Some cats, more so than dogs and not as much as chimps, pick up cues like following what you're looking at / alerted by and can be suckered into / becoming engaged with doing things just because you found them interesting.

tellurian: Her age and whether or not she has been spayed could have an impact on that. That said, my neutered old house cat spazzes out (in a non-destructive-to-humankind way) from time-to-time.
posted by bonobo at 6:47 AM on November 13, 2007

Generally speaking, animal handlers in Hollywood find that it's extremely difficult to train cats the way dogs are trained routinely.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:52 AM on November 13, 2007

After living with cats all my life, I am under the impression that cats can not really be trained to do anything.

You can teach them to do stuff, but I don't think you can really train them like you can a dog.

Of course, every individual is different, but that's been my experience.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:58 AM on November 13, 2007

Oh, the weird guttural noises with the thing-in-the-mouth mewing--I've always interpreted that as potential maternal instincts. Pack the "kitten" and cry for the other "lost kittens." I've observed that behavior from females after kittens are weaned and given away _and_ from females who were spayed and never had kittens.

I've also heard this inconvenient-to-humans-at-wee-morning-hours yowling from both sexes--regardless of age/spaying/neutering and whether or not they have had litters--who want acknowledgment for their hunting prowess. I'm not confusing that with the Kitty Cat Craigslist stuff, either.

Sounds like your kitty is less than two years old. She might not grow out of it. She will eventually become accustomed to that and won't care so much about the deadly moth on the windowsill or the fur-coated lump of mouse-shaped plastic that YEAH could LIKE, YOU KNOW, kill or feed all of ME once they figure out that you are a non-responsive lump and they mellow out a wee bit, you protector, you.
posted by bonobo at 7:10 AM on November 13, 2007

Condensed milk on the fingertip is the treat that you use VERY sparingly. Cats are slaves to that product. Catnip just makes them high and weird while the condensed milk makes them cheerful and needy. Works on dogs too.
posted by jadepearl at 7:17 AM on November 13, 2007

-How old is she? Not quite sure, she's a stray, found under my workplace - around 4 and a half years old now.
--What actions do you want her to do? Jumping through hoops sounds cool, flaming even better, just like the circus.
--How long have you had her? About 3 years +.
--How much time do you have in a day with her? In the morning, about 6-10 minutes stroking and contact as my tea brews. Each evening, between half an hour (minimum) and many hours (till I go top bed).
--What vocabulary/cues have you already taught her? (And, be honest, what cues has she taught you?) Damn, that's an embarrassing question, but yeah, I have cat talk that only she and I share. When I occassionaly slip and use a term in the real world, I get hugely paid out for it.
--Did she instruct you to badger the crazy cat people? What? Whenever I have used badger and cat in the same sentence before, she has looked askance, but I never thought anything of it.
posted by tellurian at 7:27 AM on November 13, 2007

You might try investigating the use of "clicker training" with cats.

For more information, try Karen Pryor's website which has a whole section on training cats.
posted by driley at 7:29 AM on November 13, 2007

Go to the library and get Karen Pryors book, Getting started: clicker training for cats. That should get you going and if you would like to see where we ended up, check out the Videos on Princess Website. It's tons of fun, the cat really enjoys it, and it really brings you closer.
Can't train a cat? We have all seen the big cats on TV performing and this is just a little big cat ;-).
Find a treat the the cat really likes. Baby food on a spoon, supermarket treats, or the caviar of treats, bonito flakes (can be found in Japanese supermarket).
posted by Ferrari328 at 7:33 AM on November 13, 2007

Can no one recommend a domestic cat training method? Are jungle cats so removed? Is whipping my pussy the only way?
posted by tellurian at 7:40 AM on November 13, 2007

Toots (the best cat ever!) learned to drag her string around the room, elaborately winding around chair legs, etc., to get me to come swing it about for her (she just copied what I did, it was really funny). She would fetch, some times. She learned to flush the toilet, but only to amuse herself.

The guttural meowing with item in mouth clearly means "Look what I caught!". One day Toots came running into the house making that call. Oh, wow! She caught an autumn leaf! I gave her a treat because I was amused. (being a cat, she wasn't that in to treats anyway). Well, she went back out and a few minutes latter, had caught another leaf! Same call. I adore the way they strut, head up, when they have a catch. After awhile, we had a small pile of pretty leaves...on the living room floor :-))

How to teach tricks? First, figure out what the cat wants to do, then show the cat how it's done. You have to really grok closely with a cat to get anywhere, IMO.
posted by Goofyy at 8:54 AM on November 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

She also learned that if I called her a cute little name that meant she was about to get her belly rubbed. Now whenever I say something to that effect, BAM, she's on her back.
posted by bristolcat at 5:57 AM on November 13 [+] [!] No other comments.

Works on people too.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:35 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

The cat circus guy says he never tries to train a cat to do anything it didn't already like to do. For instance, if your cat's good at hopping, come up with a hopping trick for it. Don't try to turn it into a tightrope walker. And vice versa.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:00 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I guess small_ruminant's post could be seen as an extension of my earlier post.
Training a cat is impossible;
Teaching a cat to do something is possible, and is made much easier if they only have to learn to do something they already like when you ask.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:01 PM on November 13, 2007

Cats are fickle and really only do what they want to do, so unless it wants to jump through a hoop, it won't. I taught my cat how to flush the toilet, but it wasn't like I trained him. He wanted to do it, he just needed me to show him the mechanics.

If you're not so gung ho about a single on demand trick, try playing with a laser pointer with your cat. It is insanely entertaining. My cat will literally climb the wall, jump into baskets, appear to fly, simply to get at that red dot. If I just happen to brush against the little jingly chain that the pointer is on, he makes a noise and starts looking at the floor, darting his eyes around. You can buy them at pet stores, but you have to make sure not to point your cat in the eye.

Lastly, while not really a trick, try teaching him words. For instance, when I say "treats," my cat beelines for the desk drawer where I keep them and when I say "dinner" he heads for his bowl.
posted by eunoia at 3:59 PM on November 13, 2007

Thanks, driley and Ferrari328. I'll give that clicker thing a try, it sounds like fun.
posted by tellurian at 4:34 PM on November 13, 2007

I (who posted this back in the day) agree with a bunch of other posts -- you're unlikely to get a cat to be able to do something weird for a cat. You're fairly likely to be able to get a cat to reproduce on command a behavior it does naturally. This still leaves you a pretty wide range of behaviors to reinforce.

My cat knows his name, will come when called if he feels like it, will jump up onto anything when commanded, knows "excuse me," recognizes but ignores "stay," and is getting pretty good at opening closed doors. There are also a bunch of my behaviors he recognizes and responds to -- like going to a certain drawer to get kitty-nail clippers; he loves claw-trimming time because it means treats afterwards, so he tends to trot over and fling himself down in front of me.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:51 PM on November 13, 2007

1. make her love her name.
always call her by name as you feed her, say her name a lot while she's eating, or when she's getting a treat. when you're cuddling and she's purring and squinting and happy, softly repeat her name to her. but only use your cat's name when the experience is positive for her. if she's being bad, call her "cat" or just get her attention by making sharp "pssst!" hissing noises- using her name to scold her will teach her that her name means trouble.

2. teach her to sit and stand.
my cat will sit if i hold something a foot above his nose and a little behind his head. then if i slightly raise the "something", he will stand on his hind feet like a little kangaroo to see what it is. the "something" can just be my finger, although starting with a treat is probably better. standardize what you say and how you gesture.
"fifi, sit." (down-inflection, and place finger above & behind her head so she sits to get a closer look.) "good girl fifi."
"fifi stand uuup!" (uptalk inflection, and raise finger above her head so she stands up) "good girl fifi". (give the treat)
(as she eats the treat:) "yeah fifi. fifi. you're good fifi. fifi. fifi." mentally translate her name as though it means "good cat, i love you" and say it with that tone.

3. treat choice
catnip is a good reward AFTER all the training is done for the day (and don't forget to say her name before and as she gets it), but not during training- it will make her stoned and crazy. use food and praise to train. a dab of wet cat food or chicken baby food is good.
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:04 PM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. make her love her name.
Funny that. She got her name by committee. Officially: Pistachio (DS) Empire. Pistachio (daughter suggestion - because she has green eyes), DS (my suggestion - Death Star because she is black), Empire (partner suggestion - Cat Empire, one of our favourite bands). This is quite a long name to say (reserved for tellings off now) and after a period of territorial marking/urination on my daughter's clothes she now is most often called simply 'Pissy'. She responds to it, though I'm not quite sure she loves it.
posted by tellurian at 5:21 AM on November 16, 2007

pissy is actually a pretty good name for a cat- both because it is descriptive, and because it sounds like "pussy". plus, cats like sibilant noises and tend to respond to them (that's why you can hiss "pssst" to make them stop whatever bad thing they're doing, and why people often use "pss-pss-pss" to call cats.
posted by twistofrhyme at 12:26 PM on November 17, 2007

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