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Teaching all cats new tricks

December 3, 2009 |  8:31 pm

Cat Kindergarten

People have low expectations of cats. Sam Connelly tells of the time that she and her cat Storm observed a Canine Good Citizen test while they were waiting for their feline agility class to start.

"I'm watching the dogs and I commented to the evaluator, 'My cat can do all that,'" said Connelly. "At the end she said, 'Want to take a shot?' like it was a big joke."

To the evaluator's surprise, Storm passed the test, successfully performing commands such as sit, stay, come, down and walking on a leash.

Storm is a cat that does some of these things for a living. He helps Connelly train lost pet search dogs in Maryland by hiding and waiting to be found.

But training cats isn't just for professionals -- human or feline. The Michigan Humane Society has a Pawsitive Start program that uses volunteers to train cats in the shelter in such useful and fun behaviors as the high-five and walking into a carrier.

"A lot of people look kind of funny at us when we say we train the shelter cats," says C.J. Bentley of the humane society. Cats need more than just playtime outside the cage to be well-adjusted in the shelter environment, she says.

"It's not just all about the physical, it's the mental as well," says Bentley. "To teach them to be able to solve problems on their own can reduce the stress. It gives them control over a situation."

It's not just shelter cats that need more, though. People expect pet cats to "just hang out, which isn't realistic," says Melissa Chan, behavior specialist at the Houston SPCA. Cats are naturally active animals, she says. "One thing I wish I could tell every cat owner: Cats want to work for their food."

Kindergarten Having your cat touch your hand with its nose on command is one of the easiest behaviors to train, Chan says. If you hold out your hand, most cats will naturally sniff it. Reward with a treat until the cat is doing it every time you present your hand. Then, start repeating a word like "touch" every time.

This trick can then be used to get the cat to move where you want it by placing your hand in the desired spot. "You can use it to ask them to get off the couch, or teach them to jump through a hoop by putting the hand on the other side of the hoop," Chan says.

Chan says people often don't think cats are trainable because they lack a dog's desire to please, "but we have things that cats want. That's all that matters."

Figure out what your cat will work for -- it may be a little tuna, a bit of canned food on the end of a chopstick or maybe a toss of a toy mouse.

Connelly says to keep training sessions short and varied. "Teach something else when they get one thing right," she says. "Cats get bored easily."

In addition to the specific useful behaviors, Bentley says, training can prevent problems by changing the terms of your relationship with your pet.

"The animal learns, 'When I do this, you're happy and I get a piece of food; I guess I should focus on making you happy,' " she says. "Teaching our cats to successfully do what we like and get rewarded makes them more inclined to do what we like."

-- Associated Press

Top photo: Kittens learn to socialize and play with other cats during a kitten kindergarten class at the Houston SPCA. Credit: Pat Sullivan / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Kittens learn to use a scratching post instead of furniture during a kitten kindergarten class at the Houston SPCA. Credit: Pat Sullivan / Associated Press

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