Banish all thoughts of training your cat as you would a dog. Although it’s feasible at the hands of a professional trainer, it isn’t very practical or affordable. You will want your cat to behave well, though, and you should be able to stop him from such undesirable practices as jumping up on the table to join you at mealtimes. Your coexistence will be a lot more pleasant and fun if the cat can be persuaded to come when he is called and to sharpen his claws on a scratching post instead of shredding the furniture.
Since cats, unlike dogs, rarely do things merely to please their owners, you will need a feline-based system of positive reinforcement and possibly some form of aversion stimulus in order to achieve a change in your cat’s behavior. The best way to encourage a cat to continue a behavior is with an immediate food reward, whether a full meal or a tasty treat. If at the same time you say, “Good!” the cat will come to associate the word with a positive event, even when food isn’t forthcoming. Anything your cat loves will also work — a good scratch behind the ears or a play session with a favorite toy may work as well as a food treat.
Many cat owners try to discourage their cats from undesirable behavior with sprays of water from a plant mister, loud shakers or any startling sound such as a hand clap or a whistle. If your cat is jumping onto the counter and you stop him by spritzing him with water, in actuality you are reinforcing jumping off the counter when the real problem is jumping onto it. While spritzing and other such methods can often discourage unwanted problems temporarily, they may also cause additional problems. Some cats actually like getting sprayed and chased. They think it’s a game. For them, spritzing provides positive reinforcement for the undesirable behavior, which is then likely to increase. Other cats, particularly those that tend to be excitable, are threatened by such methods and become defensive, which can lead to serious aggression problems. Aversion methods that don’t frighten or excite the cat are much safer. Putting sticky two-sided tape on the counter, for example, should provide enough discomfort for most cats to decide that the surface isn’t a fun place to explore. And this method works whether you are there to witness the behavior or not. When you are present and see the unwanted behavior beginning, say, “No!” in a stern tone; your cat may, after a while, obey the vocal command alone. Never hit your cat. Injury can result and physical punishment won’t change his behavior. The cat will simply become afraid of you and the stress may provoke further misbehavior. Reward your cat when he performs a desired behavior in place of the undesired one. Such a payoff will usually clinch the deal.
Some household items may simply be just too tempting for your cat to stay away from. Put up physical barriers to areas and surfaces you want your cat to avoid. For instance, if your cat is always getting into the garbage, you may have to get a container with a heavier or tighter-fitting lid. If he opens and enters cupboards, install childproof latches. After a while, the cat will probably lose interest in these forbidden locations and avoid them of his own accord.
One of the most basic things you can teach your cat is to respond to his own name. Say his name out loud whenever you greet or pet him, repeating it often as you do things together. To train your cat to come to you when called, start by saying his name as you put down the food bowl. Then, begin calling his name at mealtime before you do anything that makes a noise the cat might associate with food, such as opening the refrigerator, using a can opener, or scooping dry food into his bowl. When the cat appears, reward him immediately.
Wearing a Leash or Harness
With perseverance and patience, you may be able to get your cat to accept wearing a harness, either to go for walks or to run around safely in the yard. Admittedly this undertaking is a lot easier to do if you start while the cat is still a kitten. Approach the wearing of the harness gradually, with food rewards each step along the way. Start by leaving the harness out on the floor so your cat can smell and become acquainted with it. Once the harness is no longer perceived as dangerous or threatening, place it on the cat’s back without fastening it. It may help to distract the cat with a treat until he gets used to the feel of the harness. As the cat begins to accept the apparatus, fasten it for a short period of time, taking it off immediately when the cat seems perturbed. Gradually increase the length of time you leave the harness on and only once the cat seems to have forgotten that it is there, add the leash. Let the cat walk around dragging the leash, making sure it doesn’t get caught on anything. Then, hold the end of the leash so the cat becomes used to feeling pressure on it. The final step is to familiarize your cat with the exciting, and possibly frightening, sights and sounds of the outdoors. Start off in your backyard or in a quiet area close to home, holding the leash tightly in case the cat tries to bolt. Gradually increase the length of these exercises until your cat is comfortable.
Installing a cat door will give your feline access to the outdoors whenever he wishes. But getting your cat to use it may require some encouragement. A cat door may make no sense to your cat at first; having to push open the flap with his head can be off-putting. Hold the door open and tempt the cat through the door by offering a treat on the other side. Once the cat jumps in and out of the opening at will, gradually close the flap, continuing to reward each exit and entrance.