Why You Should Teach Your Cat to Touch a Stick

Have you taught your cat to touch their nose to a stick yet? Are you wondering why in the world you would do that? Called “target training,” you may have never considering training this simple skill. But professional trainers of all types of animals know that learning to target can be the beginning of many, many useful behaviors.

The What and Why of Target Training?

Target training means teaching an animal to touch an object with a specific part of their body for a reward. Most commonly the animal touches the object with their nose or paw. You can also expand this idea to train a “go to place” where the animal stands or sits on a particular spot. 

Target training is used by keepers in zoos and those working with large and/or potentially dangerous animals all the time. For example, by teaching the animal to place part of their body against a protective barrier like a fence, the keepers can safely provide medical care.

Though it’s not usually the first skill that pet owners think of, teaching your cat to target an object also has many uses. You can encourage your cat to go to a certain place or, instead, to move away from something. You can also teach them to hold still for handling by increasing the length of time they touch their target.

Start Training

Target training is one of the simpler things to teach. You’ll just need your cat’s favorite treats and something to be a target. This might be your hand, a pencil, a ruler, or a purchased “target stick”. You can even buy retractable target sticks with built-in clickers. If your cat is shy or stressed by hands reaching toward them, use something other than your hand as a target. 

Clicker stick and treats
Credit: Jessica Char

Introduce the target by placing it near your cat’s face, being careful not to startle them. Most cats will be curious about this new thing and will reach their nose to sniff it. When they touch the target with their nose, “mark” that moment and then quickly give a treat. A “mark” is a way of telling your cat exactly which thing earned them the reward. You can use a clicker (a small noise making device found at most pet stores), a click of a pen, or a word like “yes”. The point is to provide a clear indicator of the right behavior. The marker tells the cat that a reward is coming so don’t forget to follow up with the treat!

Once your cat is reliably touching the target, start making it a little harder. Show the target from different directions, instead of always right in front of your cat. Move it a little further away so your cat has to take a step to touch it. Practice in different rooms and with different distractions around. Build up each challenge slowly so your cat can be successful. For example, if your cat will run across the room to touch the target without anyone else around, go back to having them take one step when the kids are in the room. 

Troubleshooting

For a cat that isn’t interested in the target at first, rub the treat against it to make it more appealing to sniff. If your cat is fearful of approaching you, use an extra long target so you can sit further away. If instead your cat is afraid of the target, start by holding the target further away and move it slowly. Reward your cat for just looking at the target at first.

Kitten playfully biting a finger
This kitten wants to use his paws instead of his nose.
Photo Credit: Jessica Char

Some cats get excited during training and want to paw out the target or chew on it. Or they might come to your hand instead of the target. Use a clear marker to tell your cat which behavior you are looking for. As soon as you mark, remove the target so your cat can’t continue to play with it. 

Finally, if your cat doesn’t touch the target, remove it completely and then try again. Don’t move it closer without first taking it away and starting over. Otherwise your cat will learn to just wait for you to move the target closer.

Using Your Training

Now that your cat has the idea, you can turn their target training into valuable skills. 

  • Come when called: Use your hand as the target and build distance. Practice calling from other rooms.
  • Move away: If they need help with their manners, use a target to redirect your cat away from other pets, children, or your feet.
  • Go into a carrier/Come out of a carrier: Slowly move to target further into the carrier. Offer a target to encourage a hesitant cat to come out at the vet.
  • Sit on a stool: Teach to sit in a safe place while people are cooking, feeding children, or other tasks.
  • Stay still: Build up length of time that your cat touches their target for grooming or other care. These tasks will need to be added in slowly so your cat is comfortable the entire time.
  • Fun!: Use the target to teach tricks like spin or beg and agility obstacles like tunnel or jump.

Though it seems simple, learning to touch a stick can be a valuable skill for your cat. It can make necessary care easier, build good manners at home, and lead to more fun and excitement in your cat’s life. 

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.