Teach an Old Cat New Tricks

A couple of years ago, I wrote about training my then-kittens to do tricks. Now that they are 3.5 years old cats, I am writing a follow-up post on the success and challenges I have experienced in training them to do additional tricks.

I can’t guarantee that older cats can be trained. The point is to get cats to do something they would already do, except on command. The following instructions will illustrate how to turn random, quirky behaviors into tricks, but are not intended to serve as examples of what all cats could/should be able to do. The key is to use positive reinforcement to encourage them to repeat the desired results.

Say “Hello”

One of my cats, Mr. Knightley, is pretty vocal and meows a lot. One day I decided it would be cool to be able to get him to do it on command. I had to come up with a phrase to associate with the desired behavior. I started with “say hi” but my boyfriend pointed out that could be confusing because it sounded like the other trick, “high five,” especially when I praised him by saying “good hi.” Saying “good hello” is easier and less confusing.

I started the training process by saying “Say hello” to Knightley while I was doing a tricks session. He was not very cooperative but I persisted. Since he is a frequent meower, the chances were good that he would randomly meow after I said “Say hello.” Whenever he meowed after I gave that command, I would shower praise on him and say “good hello” to reinforce the word with the behavior, along with the praise. After a few months, I can get him to meow quite consistently after saying “Say hello.” My boyfriend thought (and still thinks, actually) that I was crazy to try to attempt to train my cat for that trick, but now I have a pretty cool trick to show off.

Stand

This is similar to the “up” trick that I previously trained my cats to do except that I had them stand up higher, rather than just sit up on their haunches. I put the treat high above their heads which caused them to stand up higher to reach for the treat. Eventually, I was able to get them to stand and put their paws up in the air without having to put the treat way up high.

Wave

Until my boyfriend came along, I was only able to get my cats to do tricks when I rewarded them with treats. One night, he got Darcy to give him five with no other incentive than to pet him afterward. This evolved into a trick I now call “wave.” Usually, when I have my cats “gimme five,” they’re sitting. Since my boyfriend was doing impromptu tricks, Darcy would be standing on all fours when he was asked to give five. So he would reach out his paw while his remaining three feet stayed on the ground. When he reached out without a corresponding hand to give five to, we started to call it “wave” and would say “good wave” and pet him to train him to associate the behavior with the word.

Salute

Salute was a combination of stand and wave. In the beginning, we would ask Darcy to stand and not provide any feedback. While he waited for some response from us, he would do a slight downward motion of his paw to get us to acknowledge him. That was when we discovered that this was a new trick, called “salute.” It is friggin’ adorable and is one of my favorite tricks to see Darcy do.

Gimme 10

Mr Darcy has this quirk where he likes to put both paws in the palm of my hand, which I would then kind of lift up and down a few inches. We would often carry on for a few seconds doing this. I was eventually able to turn this into a trick by associating it with the phrase, “Gimme 10.” When he gave me two paws on command, I would pet him and praise him to show how pleased I was.

Say “Good-bye”

One time, as my friends were standing at the door to leave my apartment, Mr Darcy was hanging around them. On a whim, I said, “Say good-bye, Darcy.” He stood up and waved with his right paw! I immediately praised and petted him to provide positive reinforcement. Now, whenever my boyfriend leaves and Mr Darcy is loitering, I would say “Say good-bye” and when Darcy obliged, my boyfriend and I would shower him with praise.

Key points

  • look for behaviors that the cat would do anyway
  • provide positive reinforcement with treats, petting, and/or verbal praise
  • have lots of patience

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