WHAT? Train a cat? YES! You can do it!
Cats are such intelligent creatures. By not exercising their brains we are condemning them to a life of boredom. What a shame! One of the best ways to enrich their lives is to train them fun and useful behaviors.
The easiest way to train cats is to use clicker training, but it's not necessary to use a clicker. You can use the words "Good Kitty," "Good," or "Yes" if you want, you just need to say it immediately and consistently, followed by positive reinforcement of course (treats!!).
There are several books (Books page) listed on this site that can help you get started on training your kitty(ies). Cats can be trained sit, come, beg, down, roll over, go to mat and even to get into their carrier. One of the most important requests to train your cat is to "come" when called. It helps to be prepared in case of an emergency. With a good "recall", your pet will come regardless of the circumstances. Another great tool is "Go to mat." I know of a case where family cats had gotten into an altercation. The owner called out "Go to mat" and each cat immediately went to their perspective mats and everyone calmed down. As you can see, this can be VERY useful.
One determining factor for effective positive reinforcement training is the satisfying reward used. Some cats are not "food oriented." The term "food motivated" isn't appropriate when training because most animals, if hungry, can be food motivated. Food oriented relates to the fact that the training subject readily accepts food as a reward. Some pets are not food oriented. Therefore, a different reinforcement needs to be considered. Many animals enjoy play and can be rewarded with a short, fun game. Whichever reward is used, it should be used in small amounts to keep interest in training active. Food sources that many cats like are baby food, freeze dried chicken liver, Temptations (break in half), party mix treats, tuna, deli meat (chicken, turkey), etc.. As for play, some cats like to play fetch or interact with fishing pole type toys.
The clicker, or the word "yes", "good", etc., are all tools called "markers." Used correctly, they "mark" the behavior for which you are training. This tool must be utilized immediately once the behavior has been performed so the pet will realize, "yes, this is what my trainer wants!"
To get started, the marker needs to be "charged." This involves employing the marker, followed by giving the reward/reinforcer. For example, click the clicker or say the word, "yes" or "good" and immediately follow it with the cat's choice of reward (reinforcement), be it food or play. Doing this several times will help the pet realize that each time the marker is used, rewards ensue. When it's perceived the pet understands, training sessions can begin.
One of the best clickers on the market is the "i-click" (products page). It is nice and quiet; therefore, doesn't startle or irritate pets. The click of a writing pen can also work, or even the "cluck" of a tongue. Use what is comfortable and be consistent. Some people even use low tone whistles.
For cats, keep the duration of the training sessions short. Having sessions two to three times a day, but no more than 5- 10 minutes is best. Keep it fun. Whatever behavior is being trained should be broken down to easy, baby steps. Once kitty has the first step, add on the second step and so on. This keeps everyone from getting frustrated when asking too much at one time. If trying to add on the second step, but confusion and frustration sets in, go back to what the pet knows. Keep it fun and end on a positive note. Try again later.
One of the most useful behaviors, because it can so easily lead to others, is targeting. Cats are naturals at this behavior due to their curiosity. Point to an item or place and a cat will naturally sniff it to investigate. Use a finger, pencil, stick or even the retractable "click stick" (products page). As soon as kitty sniffs that to which is being pointed, "click" and provide the reward (positive reinforcer).
Using a Cue
The "Cue" is a word or signal that the pet will associate with a given behavior being trained. The cue for target training is
the word "Target." The cue isn't necessary in initial training stages. However, once the behavior is developed, it is essential to associate the cue with the behavior. While pointing to the area to be touched/sniffed, say the word "target", once kitty does the desired behavior, click and then treat/play. Kitty will begin to associate the word "target" with touching a desired item. Once kitty is consistently "targeting" the desired object, begin to have kitty target other things. When kitty can target, the real fun begins!
Where to Train
It is best if training sessions are in a quiet area with no other pets, people, distractions, etc.. It helps both parties concentrate on the training. When kitty is comfortable with the trained behavior, begin to step outside the training room to practice the behavior under different conditions. It may help to return to the original training area afterward to end with a positive, comfortable session.
Training is fun for both parties and is so rewarding. Cats that have fun often look forward to their training sessions. The larger the behavior repertoire built, the more enrichment kitty receives. Many times pets are seen performing these behaviors without receiving the cue, perhaps hoping to receive the reward or for fun. These training sessions are a great way to build a loving, trusting, solid relationship with kitty!