Teaching (an older) cat

Your cat looks at you, wondering when you will return to wherever you normally go during the day. Instead of boring her again, why not teach her something new today? You might wonder if you can train an older cat – yes you can.

Kathy Clayton, owner and head trainer of KC Dog School and a senior accredited companion animal behaviourist for dogs and cats, says she believes all cats are trainable. “Dogs may be easier to train because they are more biddable, but I know a few friends who have trained their cats to come on command, to sit and one even gives a paw.”

Kathy says that as with older dogs, older cats may take longer to train as they are set in their ways, but it is certainly not impossible. As with any training, it takes patience. Training can also help steer behaviour away from the unwanted (like scratching on furniture) to the wanted (scratching on a scratching post).

Training a cat of any age is good exercise for her brain, and depending on what you want her to do, many also provide good exercise for her body. It also helps to strengthen the bond between cat and owner.

First things first

Once you decide to go ahead with training and you have established that your cat is in good health and able to proceed, decide what you want to train her to do first and then find a suitable training programme. “You are working with a cat and not a dog,” cautions Kathy. “Some cats are more agile than others – the oriental cats are more slim and flexible and will be able to do things that a heavier Persian cat could possibly not do.”

Getting started with clicker training

Kathy suggests clicker training, a very popular training method for dogs too. “It is a positive reinforcer where the click is given to mark the behaviour and then the animal is rewarded with a nice treat.”

Clicker training is based on the principle that if a behaviour is rewarded, it will be repeated. If the behaviour is not rewarded, it will stop. Never punish your cat for unwanted behaviour. This will only make her fearful of you.

An older cat may be happy to work for the ‘reward’ of a small food treat, but some cats may enjoy your attention in the form of a cuddle or back scratch or the chance to play with a beloved toy.

Finding your cat’s ‘motivator’ is an important starting point.

  1. Decide on something simple to start with. For example, teaching your cat to sit.
  2. Assemble what you need – a clicker and tasty treats or another motivator.
  3. Establish a link between the sound of the clicker and getting a treat or cuddle. Some cats will quickly associate the two; others take more time.
  4. Do this several times per day until the link is established. Once this is done, you can start the training. To teach a cat to sit, hold a treat high above her head. This encourages her to look up and makes her bottom drop down. Once it touches the floor or table, press the clicker and give the reward. Keep the session short, but train often. Once your cat sits most of the time when she hears the clicker, you can introduce a verbal clue to ‘sit’.

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