• DateMarch 1, 2020

Cat Training – two projects for you to try

My cats have been feeling left out (Martin protesting depicted below!) so I decided to do a blog on simple but useful training exercises you could do with your cat. 

Martin protesting at the thought of another dog blog!

I get asked a lot if I train with my cats or if it’s possible to train cats and the answer is yes, and they enjoy it!  I find them more challenging than the dogs because they have very short attention spans, you have to fit around them as they may just not turn up when you have the time to train, they are also very clear when they’ve had enough and will just walk off and this can be just 20 seconds into a training session (so perservere!), finding a suitable reinforcer can be difficult, and they are much slower, especially at first. It really is worth trying though, it’s made such a huge positive difference to my relationship with my cats.

The best reinforcer is anything your cat loves that you can make quite small.  I have used:

– cream cheese on a spoon so they can lick it off;

– tuna;

– Dreamies (too many of these tend to make them sick though so careful with these, plus they take FOR-EVER to eat them);

– very small pieces of cheese or sausage. 

As all cats seem to LOVE Dreamies this might be a good one to start your training with and then you can introduce other things.  The treat size I use for the dogs (a cocktail sausage cut in half lengthways and then cut into 7 slices), I divide by 3 for the cats.

What I decided to focus on here are two simple behaviours – targeting and go to mat. You can then go and run with them!

Why should we teach our cats these behaviours?  Both of these behaviours are useful for visiting the vets – manoeuvring them into position without touching them and so using minimal stress, and the mat can be useful for stationing for handling procedures.  And because these behaviours can be really handy if you want to keep them off the table during meal times (mat), and if you want to move them around without touching them (targeting).


When targeting you can use your hand, a finger, a target stick, a wooden spoon, a chopstick, pretty much anything!  Make sure you remove the stick when you click so it’s still novel when you present it again for the next rep (I’m really bad for this)!

  • Start by presenting the target right in front of your cat’s nose, they will naturally go to sniff it, click and reinforce (treat) the touch;
  • Once you’ve got a pretty reliable nose touch on the stick right in front of them, start to offer it a bit further away so they have to stretch to get to the stick;
  • Then you can start offering it higher or lower and all around them.  I have found it is best to wait until they’ve finished eating and gazing around (see video ha ha!) before presenting the stick again.
  • Then start to move the stick slightly and see if they will continue to touch it with their nose – this is the start of getting them to follow the target which is hugely beneficial for stress free moving of your cat.

The video shows my cat Rhum and his first few attempts at targeting.  He’s a wee precious beastie and is easily distracted!  It’s rather a long video, over 5 minutes, but it’s two sessions together and we get to the point where he will follow the target stick.  I do quite a lot of training with Rhum so he’s pretty clicker savvy, if you’ve never done training with your cat before then you will need patience and appreciate that you may not move a long this quickly.  Be patient though, it will really pay off!

Go to mat

I love this behaviour for dogs and cats and my next blog will have elements of how to teach this for your dog but this method would work too.

Make sure you’re ready with your reinforcer and your cat.  Put the mat down, mark and reinforce your cat for looking at it.  You’re then looking for:

  • any movement towards the mat;
  • a paw on the mat;
  • two paws on the mat;
  • standing on the mat;
  • a sit on the mat;
  • a down on the mat (I’ve actually found the sit more useful so I haven’t gone this far with my cats).

Make sure you increase your criteria (steps) slowly.  As you’ll see on the video I like to mark and reinforce Rhum a couple of times for being on the mat and then I will throw the reinforcer off the mat to reset the behaviour.  If I throw the treat I usually show them where it has landed, they don’t seem to have gotten the hang of following the treat like the dogs can.

The video shows that we even got the cue in before the end of the session (see below for notes on adding in a cue).  It has been heavily edited for his eating and away with the faeries moments 😀

Notes on adding in cue:

  • Say the cue, for example, ‘mat’ just as your animal is doing the behaviour so just as they lie down on the mat.  Click/Treat and toss the treat behind the mat to reset.  Repeat this 5 x;
  • Then cue just as your animal starts the behaviour, so just as they walk towards the mat.  Click/treat and toss the treat behind the mat to reset.  Repeat this 5 x;
  • Then just as your animal finishes eating the treat, just before they start the behaviour, cue ‘mat’.  Click/treat and toss the treat behind the mat to reset.  Repeat this 5 x;
  • To get a good strong cue you can alternate it with other well known cues such as ‘sit’, ‘touch’, ‘paw’;
  • Ignore the behaviour if they offer it without the cue.  If this happens ask for an alternative behaviour such as a touch, click/treat and then cue ‘mat’ before they start the behaviour.  If they keep doing the behaviour uncued then give a tiny pause after the reset and then cue ‘mat’ then very slowly increase the duration of the pause;
  • Your animal should now be waiting for you to cue the behaviour 😊.

Please let me know how you get on with these exercises, I’m really excited to see more people get involved with fun training with their cats.  You can leave me a comment and/or video in this blog post or on the post for this blog on my Facebook page @JustClickPetTraining 😊

Carol Milner

About Carol Milner

I currently live in Weymouth, Dorset (originally from Beverley in East Yorkshire). I am a certified dog trainer, graduating from the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional course in October 2016. I have owned dogs since 2001 when I got my first rescue dog Jack, a mutt extraordinaire. When I lost him I spent two years fostering dogs for a local charity and as a result I gained Odie and Sweep. Odie is the reason I became interested in training and behaviour. He demonstrates "aggressive" behaviours towards other dogs. I chose clicker training because I saw how much confidence it gives both my boys and I train mostly as a hobby with my own dogs and cats and spend my spare time with them and continuing my training and behaviour education with webinars and seminars. My passion as a trainer is in force free husbandry. If we can teach dangerous exotic animals to accept blood draws voluntarily then we have no excuse in not teaching it to our animals. I work full time as a marine biologist (to fund my dog habit!), a job I have done for 20 years. It has taught me to avoid the use of jargon while not dumbing down content, a skill I hope will help me produce a helpful blog!


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