Watching cats do even the simplest trick is a treat because, while dogs do tricks to please their people, cats perform only if they really feel like it…and often, they don't. However, the popular belief that cats cannot be trained is wrong. Cats can learn to do some amazing stunts, with the right guidance. The Moscow Cat Theater, a traveling feline circus, has cats navigating tightropes and balance beams or rolling across the stage atop giant balls. Chicago's Acro-Cats include similar feline performers, plus an all-cat rock band with cat-sized guitars and piano. Your cat may secretly daydream of a gold medal in the catnap Olympics, but in reality, he can also perfect a few actions that might impress even Lassie.
To get your cat interested in doing a trick, tap into his own preferences: Some cats are vertically oriented, opting for leaps and climbs, while others like to stay closer to the ground. It also helps to know a little about training cats. Cats learn differently from dogs. Dogs are more motivated by food, while cats are more motivated by play. (That's not to say a little treat won't work.) They also require more repetition of each trick, so you'll need extra patience. However, if your cat cooperates, the results are highly satisfying. Here are five tricks to teach your cat.
5: Shaking Hands
Young cats pick up tricks easier than mature ones, but even an older kitty can master this move. Keep your training sessions short, no more than 10 minutes daily, and turn off TVs, radios or other background distractions. Be consistent, training at the same time every day. Before mealtime is best, so your cat will respond to a food reward.
Always use your cat's name to get his attention, and see how he reacts to a simple paw shake: When he's sitting still, hold a treat in one hand, place the other hand behind a front paw and give it a bump. As he raises his paw, say "Buster, shake," and hold his paw gently. Say "Good shake" while rewarding him with the treat. Try one or two times more, always repeating the request to "shake." Your cat may anticipate the treat and start raising his paw on his own. Offer yours, palm up, for a feline high five.
4: Hurdle those Obstacles
An obstacle course in your living room -- yes, your cat may already have established this with lamps and tables -- provides a fun workout . Like dogs, cats now compete in agility competitions, making their way around an assortment of hurdles while chasing a lure. Check online videos and photos of agility cats to see how similar it is to horse show jumping.
Your cat needn't be a champion show jumper to participate. Use a toy fishing rod, the kind with fake feathers, or a piece of twine tied to a cat toy, as a lure to entice Kitty. Set up a course with boxes, books, big pillows or chairs; you can also construct poles and platforms from online plans, or buy ready-made canine agility equipment for your home show ring.
After your cat investigates each obstacle, drag the lure over each while you stand in the middle of the course. Kitty will quickly follow, trying to get a paw on that elusive prey. He may decide to take a shortcut, around a hurdle rather than over it. High-energy cats enjoy the chase most, but all will investigate this new playground. With two cats, try a steeplechase, and encourage both to bounce over the jumps.
3: Hoop Dreams
Get your cat to walk, then jump through a hoop by starting with a clicker, which is a small training device available at pet supply stores. Acro-Cats trainer Samantha Martin won't reveal the secrets behind her cats' amazing performances, but she advocates training all cats with a clicker. The cricket-like noise, followed by a tasty morsel, teaches the cat to link the clicker with a delicious follow-up. Click, reward, repeat. Even kittens will quickly get the routine.
Once your cat knows the clicker means a treat, place a hoop -- a small Hula hoop or a large embroidery hoop -- between you (and the treat) and your cat. Hold the treat and clicker in front of the hoop, click, and watch your cat walk through to get his treat. With some practice, the cat will go through the hoop at the sound of the clicker. Speed up the action, change the size or placement of the hoop, or set up multiple hoops, with the help of a friend. Your cat will look like a graceful tiger, starring in his own three-ring circus.
2: Paws-ing to Shop
Your cat may be receptive to a game of home shopping, created by my cat Starli. Nudge him to paw open a cabinet, or a box with flaps on it, in which you've placed a couple of favorite toys, a few magazines or CDs. Offer a treat as you say, "Shadow, go shopping!" and give it to him once he's opened the cabinet. He'll grab a toy, or paw those slick magazines out one by one. If you use your clicker as you say the command, he'll associate the click with opening the door and getting at what's behind it. (Cats seem to enjoy opening a cabinet or drawer even more than exploring inside it.) Your cat may decide to stay in the cabinet, choosing more items to play with, contemplating his next trick.
1: Jump for Joy
If your cat is a jumping-jack kind of feline, reward him for making the leap. It takes a special talent and a world of patience to teach, but my parents' ginger cat Garfield learned to rise up, putting his paws together over a piece of dry food, grabbing it like an outfielder. For most cats, jumping up onto a couch, chair or cat tree on command is a simpler trick; he's already interested in doing it, so now get him to hop to at your word.
First get him used to rising up on his back legs, letting you pat his head as you give him a treat. Then hold a treat in front of him, slowly, deliberately raising it and saying "Brownie, up, " holding it over the spot where you want him to jump. Your cat will launch off his hind legs and swipe at the treat. Once he's seen this a few times, he'll start his jump as soon as your hand goes up. You can get him to jump down, too, allowing your cat to give a perfect imitation of a dog who's forbidden to jump on the furniture.
Always praise your cat for doing tricks, and be sure he's having fun. If he's not, try different tricks until he settles on the activities that bring him joy.