Surprising Ways Target Training Can Help Cats

Getting Started

The first step is to choose a target. There are a number of options, but the most common is a target stick or a spoon. You will also need a clicker.

Get the cat interested in the target by spreading a soft treat onto it. The treat should be used only to get your cat’s attention during the first few training attempts; after that, it should be removed.

Hold the target a few inches from the cat’s face and slightly to the side. As soon as your cat shows any sign of interest, including moving his body or even just his eyes toward the target, click and reward, either with a lick of the treat you have spread on the target or with a treat offered from your other hand. The goal is to get the cat to walk toward the target and touch it with his nose.

After each successful repetition, gently remove the target by moving it out of sight or putting it behind your back. Present the target again as you’re ready for the next try. If the cat doesn’t touch or seem to notice the target, remove it and then present it again, this time perhaps a little closer to the cat or with a different treat spread on it, as needed.

You can also use your hand as a target. The principle is the same: Present the target (your hand) and click and reward for any interest. Keep in mind that when you are using your hand as a target, it should initially be kept in a predictable position, such as an open palm, a closed fist or a couple of fingers extended.

If needed, get the cat interested in orienting toward your hand by smearing a treat on your extended fingers or holding a solid treat inside your closed hand. However, many cats will naturally investigate a hand that is placed in front of them. Reinforce this behavior by clicking and rewarding.

The Rewards of Target Training

Once your cat is reliably touching the target each time it is held out, you can add a cue, like the word “touch,” to ask for the behavior. Give the cue just before or just as the cat moves toward the target; this will help to create an association between the word and the behavior.

Gradually increase the distance the cat needs to go to touch the target to keep him successful and excited about the target. With practice, your cat should progress from moving a couple of inches to touch the target to following the target even if it is held a few feet away. Eventually, he will learn to move onto or off of an object to get to the target.

Once your cat has mastered targeting, you can get creative in your use of the target. Targeting can be used to get a cat to come when called or to do a trick like jumping through a hoop. You can also use a target to lead your cat easily into his crate or to lure him on or off the sofa or bed.

One note: Every behavior modification plan should begin with a visit to the vet to clear the cat of any medical problem that could be contributing to his behavior. I also recommend lifestyle changes, like adding in more opportunity for play, limiting play to toys rather than human hands and setting up hunts for food. In combination with target training, these strategies can make a noticeable difference in a cat’s behavior.

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