When you think about training your cat to do tricks, what do you think?
“You can’t train a cat!”
“That would be cute to post on Facebook, I guess?”
“My cat is [peeing on everything, hiding all the time, biting me], I can’t even think about stupid tricks!”
Here’s a radical* suggestion: not only can you train a cat but a simple trick could dramatically change your cat’s life. Let me tell you about how learning to “high five” gave a homeless cat a new chance at life.
Scared and Sick
Scrawny and dirty, Sandy came into the shetler in a trap. Completely shut down and beyond fighting, she tolerated handling for an initial vet exam which revealed two things. One was a microchip that had been placed when she went through the shelter’s TNR (trap, neuter, return) program 10 years prior! The other was a severe infection in her mouth. To cure her infection, the vet determined that she needed to have all of her teeth removed. But without teeth she couldn’t go back to living outdoors.
Sandy’s only option was to learn to be comfortable living indoors with people.
Sandy was set up in a small private room with a big cat tree, lots of toys, and a window for watching the birds. The medical staff pulled her teeth and monitored her healing. After all, no one expected her to feel comfortable while she was in pain. Still, even after being declared healthy, Sandy preferred to hide in the corner and avoid people.
Love and Patience Makes a Difference
Luckily for Sandy, she found herself in the right place to make the switch to indoor living. Fearful cats like her can take months to start to adjust and feel safe. Staff and volunteers went into Sandy’s room several times a day to sit with her, talk quietly, and offer her treats. (Learn more about the process here.) As time went on, familiar people could pet or brush her as long as they went slowly. She even started to play!
Now that she was showing us that she could bond with people, the decision was made to move Sandy to a new room where potential adopters could see her. It was time for Sandy to find her new family.
Change is Hard and Claws Come Out
Her adoption room was similar to the room in which Sandy had spent the last two months. The big changes was that now she had new volunteers visiting her and lots of people walking past everyday. Unfortunately this wasn’t an easy move for Sandy. Her life had become more unpredictable, something that is hard for any cat. She reacted by starting to show aggressive behavior toward people who approached her. Without teeth she couldn’t bite but she was quickly learning that her claws were effective at making people back off. While most people tried hard to give her time to warm up, Sandy didn’t give much indication of discomfort or warning before swatting.
Volunteers returned to sitting quietly with her and tossing treats. The backslide wasn’t unexpected but Sandy was proving more difficult to win over this time. Potential adopters who came to visit weren’t able to bond with her and volunteers struggled to show off her good qualities. Things weren’t looking good for the toothless senior.
Speaking the Same Language
After two months of working with Sandy, she had become a favorite of mine. Her challenging behavior just made me want to work with her more. I decided to teach her to do a “target” on the end of a popsicle stick. Targeting is a useful behavior because you can use to to move an animal around, to get them to follow you or jump up on something or even go into a carrier. I was hoping that I could teach Sandy to come off her perch and approach as a way of starting an interaction with new people.
Teaching most behaviors is a “simple” pattern of:
(A) Ask for the Behavior -> (B) Get the Behavior -> (C) Reward the Behavior
I started with some treat tosses just to make sure Sandy was relaxed with my being in the room. Then I just offered the popsicle stick to her to sniff (A). Because most animals will investigate something new and non-threatening, it wasn’t surprising when she reached her nose to touch the stick (B). I then followed up with a click from my clicker and offered her a lick of meat-flavored baby food (C). (Don’t worry about the clicker at this point, it’s just a way of marking the desired behavior. You could also use a word or skip that part as long as you reward quickly).
After asking for the “target” behavior a few times, it was clear that Sandy was already understanding that she could do things to make me give her the baby food. The beauty of this kind of training (often called positive reinforcement training or positive training) is that it teaches the animal that they can have choice and control over their life. Sandy could choose whether or not to touch the popsicle stick. If she did, then she got something delicious. If not, no big deal. It was as though we were suddenly speaking the same language.
Trick Training Changes the Game
Now that Sandy understood that she could earn baby food from me, she seemed eager to figure out all the ways she could play the game. On her own she started using a paw to touch the popsicle stick. Seeing an opportunity, I encouraged this behavior and was able to quickly shift her to touching my hand with her paw when I offered it. Sandy had switch from swatting to giving a “high five”!
I practiced this cute new trick over the next few days, asking for it in different places around her room. Now it was time to show it off and teach Sandy that other people would play this game with her as well. I started with volunteers that she knew well, showing them how to offer their hand to ask for the high five. Sandy was happy to oblige and impressed everyone with her enthusiasm for the trick.
There was one “problem” with Sandy’s trick. She would only do it a couple times in a row. After that she got distracted by rubbing on people and asking for petting! Maybe not such a problem for this formally fearful cat after all.
Happily Ever After
With the all the hard work of everyone who put in the time (and treats) to build Sandy’s confidence and the addition of her high five trick to break the ice, Sandy was able to start greeting new people and making new friends. She would probably never be a party animal but she was well on her way to being a wonderful pet. Senior cats often get overlooked in a shelter, especially when they hide from people trying to look at them. Thankfully Sandy’s faithful volunteer cheering squad was there to encourage adopters to visit her. Now that she was feeling more confident, Sandy was ready to charm anyone who came into her room. After four months in the shelter, a loving family adopted Sandy and took her home to continue her transition from feral to beloved pet.
Tricks for Everyone
Cute tricks may not solve all your problems but they can be a surprising tool in your toolbox for solving your pet’s behavior problems and helping them live their best life. Tricks are usually trained for fun and we feel less pressure to make the animal to do what we are asking. This lowered pressure is actually likely to make your training go faster and is especially important with animals that display fearful or aggressive behavior.
Tricks can be useful in a wide range of situations:
Need help using tricks to work on your cat’s behavior?
Tricks are for more than just impressing your social media followers!
*Actually trick training as a way of modifying behavior isn’t new or radical at all. Trainers and behaviorists all over the world are changing how animals behavior by teaching them to play games. After all, what is an elephant offering its foot for a nail trim but a very delicate “high five”?