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Sophia Yin

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Release Your Inner Kitty Through Tricks and Training

Posted: 06/22/09 12:40 PM ET

As every kid knows, while America is a democracy, the American family is not. It's a dictatorship and even the youngest family members are savvy to the balance of power. One such youngster explained it to me, "In this house," he said, "the dogs are the lowest. The kids come next. The parents are above the kids. And the cats are on top."

Indeed with over 60 million cats in the U.S., cats are at the top in more ways than one.

In their insidious manner, they've quietly surpassed the dog as America's number one pet. It's easy to see why. They are small, they don't bark, they are independent, and they're like having a bit of the wild in your house. Well, sort of. In many cases maybe it's more like having a fat blob of something wild in your house. Because while their wild counterparts spend up to eight hours a day foraging and solving life's problems, for the typical housecat, every day is Sunday and the couch is his best friend. Forget foraging. If he yells loud enough, someone will deliver.

It's not that cats purposely fall into this rut. The wave of lethargy just sets in. But as second in command, you don't have to accept this as fact. You can release your cat's inner kitten by training simple tricks. Yes, really.

You're probably thinking "My cat's not smart enough. This training is only for abnormally smart cats." But intelligence is not the issue. As long as your kitty likes to eat you have it made. Here are some tricks that you can easily train.

Cat Trick Number 1: Come When Called

If Kitty can hit the kitchen at the sound of beef and liver being liberated from a can, surely he can learn to zip over at the sound of his name. Here's how you start. First make sure Kitty's hungry and will take treats by hand. If you use canned food, trust me, start by putting it on a spoon. Some cats can't tell the difference between your finger and a T-bone steak. Next say his name once (and only once or he'll think his name is Kittykitty or Kittykittykitty ) and then immediately give him a small treat. Repeat the exercise five to ten times and then take a break. After you've paired the treat with his name a bunch of times he should start to make the association. When you say his name and he responds by turning towards you, he's on his way. If he has this down pat, you can add some distance. Call him when he's several feet away. Systematically increase the distance. Pretty soon he'll be dashing from the other room.
How long does it take? Not to put any pressure on you, but my chicken Thelma learned this in two days (she likes to eat), and my rat took four. Hint: if it takes much longer it's not your cat's fault.

Cat Trick Number 2: Touch a Target With the Nose

For this exercise, you need a pencil with an eraser or a ball on the end and a word to tell Kitty he's on the right track. Best to use a word or phrase he rarely hears. For cats, that would be, "Good" or "Yes" stated in a distinct way." Now hold the pencil in front of him and when he investigates the target with his nose, say "good" or "yes" once and immediately give him his treat. Repeat the exercise in short sessions until he actively seeks the target out and touches it. Now you can use the target to lead him wherever you want, such as onto a chair for the next exercise.

Cat Trick Number 3: Sit and Stay


Hold a treat up to Kitty's nose and move it up and back so he shifts his weight to the rear, causing him to sit. A feisty cat might try to paw you. Just remove you hand whenever he does this until he sits and then give him the treat.

Unlike a sitting dog whose derriere springs up like a waffle out of toaster, cats are masters of the sit position. Since they tend to hold their hiney down for a few seconds following the treat, sit-stay is really easy to teach. Once Kitty knows how to sit, say "stay" and just wait a few seconds. Then give him another treat while he's still sitting. You can then start adding distance from him by taking a step away and quickly coming back with his reward before he gets up. Systematically increase the time and distance over several sessions.

Putting it Together

Now you have the tools for training almost anything you want -- jumping through hoops, fetching a ball, playing the piano. Use the target to lead Kitty around and reinforce the behavior you want using food at first and later using praise or petting instead, if Kitty likes those things. Just be careful what you reinforce. A cat playing the piano all day could get on your nerves.

 

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