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How to Train Your Cat (Yes, It Can Be Done)

Who says you can’t train cats? Like dogs, they can learn new tricks.

As a cat awaiting adoption, Scooter had three strikes against him. The black American shorthair didn’t get along with some of the other cats and had scratched one of the volunteers caring for him at Homeward Trails Animal Rescue in Arlington. A few months later, he clawed someone else. Leigh Carr, the volunteer who had brought Scooter to the rescue group, was running out of options. She decided to take him to the Veterinary Behavior Clinic in Gaithersburg to see Dr. Kathryn Meyer, a vet who specializes in animal behavior. By the end of her appointment—a standard three-hour session runs $385—Scooter was sitting and jumping on command.

“The doctor said he is a highly intelligent cat and part of his problem is he’s bored,” says Carr, a lawyer who lived in Arlington before moving away this spring. “He needs something to focus his energy on.”

Carr hadn’t considered training a cat. But experts say it’s possible—it just requires time and patience. While dogs are pack animals and thus often eager to work with people, cats are more independent, tend to have shorter attention spans, and sometimes show more attitude. Animal Planet recently debuted a reality show called My Cat From Hell, about a Los Angeles–based behaviorist who counsels families ready to give up on their problem cats.“We don’t have to train cats as much,” says Meyer, “but it doesn’t mean they can’t be trained.”

Carol Rosen, a trainer at Positive Dog Training and Animal Actors in Silver Spring, works with cats in local TV and movie productions. She says the key is figuring out what motivates the cat and using that to reinforce the desired behavior. For Scooter, dehydrated chicken and fish treats work best; other cats crave petting or the mental stimulation of toys.

“With dogs, praise can be very rewarding,” says Jean White of Loyal Companions training in Frederick County. “Since dogs want to please us, if we are happy with what they are doing, that can be a reward. Cats need more than just praise.”

If the goal is to combat behavior problems—such as not using the litter box, scratching the furniture, or displaying aggression—trainers say it’s important to see a vet first in order to rule out medical conditions that may be a cause. As a general rule, they say rewarding good manners is more effective than punishing bad ones. Rather than spraying a cat with water when it jumps on the countertop—double-stick tape on the counter might help—try giving the cat a treat when it jumps down or when it scratches its post instead of the sofa. Making a cat comfortable with potentially stressful changes in its environment can curb skittishness, so Rosen recommends acclimating your cat to new surroundings such as the car or the park.

“People don’t really socialize their kittens, so they grow into cats who live these really sheltered lives,” says Meyer, who recommends Felinestein: Pampering the Genius in Your Cat for teaching tricks. She says some cats respond to clicker training, a method commonly used with dogs.

After her session with Meyer, Carr tried some of the vet’s suggestions, such as training Scooter to follow a pencil when another cat entered the room. When she rewarded his good behavior, she saw a new side of him: “It was so cute. You’d give him a treat and he’d lift his hind end a bit, scoot up a couple of inches, and sit back down so he could get another.”

Scooter, who eventually went to live with Carr, can now sit, jump up or down, shake, beg, give high-fives, and “kiss” on command. He learned all that in a couple of weeks.

“He is a perfect gentlemen—he gets along well with the other cats,” Carr says. “It’s really made him a wonderful pet.”

This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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