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animal instincts

Cat Tricks

Anything dogs can do, cats can do too

Cats are famous for being willful, independent, and impossible to reason with. But the truth is that they can be as responsive as dogs—if you provide the right kind of reward. Food can be a powerful motivator, as can petting and predatory games. And cats do particularly well with so-called secondary reinforcers—methods that don’t so much reward success as signal it.

Typically, the secondary reinforcer is a “clicker,” a small plastic case enclosing a metal strip that makes a distinct clicking sound when depressed. At first, the click is paired with a treat; soon, the desired behavior is clicked first and then rewarded with a treat. Once the animal is offering the behavior frequently, the desired response is put “on cue,” which means the behavior is clicked and rewarded only if it is performed following a cue. Ultimately, the click serves as its own reward, but it must occasionally be reinforced with food.

The power of secondary reinforcement was first noticed by Marian and Keller Breland, psychologists who studied under the behaviorist B.F. Skinner. They found that it could be used to train chickens to dance, macaws to roller skate, ducks to play a piano, reindeers to operate a printing press, and pigs to put wooden coins in a piggy bank.

A clicker helped me train my own cat Cinder. Years later I could successfully instruct her to sit even with no clicker or food on hand. Another cat I heard about was clicker trained to step on a pink rubber strip, the remains of a burst balloon. The cue words were “touch it.” Over time, the strip was moved across the floor, onto a chair, and finally onto a pressure-sensitive light switch. When the owner climbed into bed at night, he would say “touch it,” and the cat would bound across the floor, jump up on the chair, and hit the switch. And yes, right after the light went out there was a click and the owner tossed over a food treat.

My former resident Jean DeNapoli trained her cat to jump up onto a surface whenever she said “up” and down again whenever she said “down.” She also trained it to run through a tube when instructed. This she accomplished using a “target stick” that the cat had to touch before getting clicked and rewarded. Other trainers have induced cats to follow a laser light instead of a stick. One cat trained this way would open the door into a box and then run out through a silk sleeve. It would receive its click and reward when it emerged at the opposite end.

Yet another cat of my acquaintance learned to perform a complicated sequence of acrobatics. It jumped through hoops, over A-frames, onto chairs, and through cardboard tubes, completing a circuit of some dozen obstacles in perfect order every time before getting its click and reward. The trainer used a technique known as back chaining, in which the last task is taught first and the others are added on, each becoming a bridge to the next. And once, at a cat agility contest in Arlington, Texas, I saw cats follow a tinsel-tipped wand in, over, and around various obstacles, including the feline equivalent of slalom poles. At first I thought the animals were simply chasing the wands, following their predatory instinct. But when a few of the cats completed the circuit on their own after only a couple of run-throughs, I realized they had spontaneously learned the whole sequence of tasks from first to last instead of backwards. That takes smarts and memory.

If you own a cat that becomes animated only at meal times, you probably find such feats astonishing. But with a bit of effort, you can train your couch-potato pet to respond to cues like sit, down, up, and fetch. Because Cinder knew to come when called, I could keep her out of trouble when I let her out to roam (under human supervision) in the backyard. We knew each other well, Cinder and I, and being able to communicate—albeit in rudimentary ways—made our relationship that much more special.

One of the world’s leading animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His latest book is The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin).

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