There are so many videos on the Internet that show cats doing some crazy things. One of the most common questions I receive regarding cat training is how to train a cat to play fetch. This question is typically inspired by a video or a friend who has a cat who plays fetch. When I tell people that they can train any cat anything it is mentally and physically able to do, they are then more curious and inspired to teach fetch.
Cats Are Individuals
When you ask people how they taught their cat to perform fetch, many of them say that they didn’t do any training; the cat did it on her own. This is true for many behaviors. All cats have tendencies for different behaviors. Some cats give high-fives without much effort from their owner, while for others this trick takes many steps in training. The same goes for fetch. Many people love to show off their cat’s behavior and advertise how they didn’t put much effort in the training. Seeing people and their cat develop a behavior so quickly can be discouraging to people who really have to work for it. If your cat happens to be one who needs greater effort to train, I encourage you to do it. Training your cat to play fetch is worth it. You will also enjoy the process and end result with your cat. So for those of you with cats who don’t just play fetch instinctively, I would like to state: You can train your cat to play fetch. The game is the same for all cats, but the process to get there may look different because all cats are different. So as we go through the steps, realize that your cat may need to practice each step, or she could move through them so quickly it feels like she is acing the program.
Step 1: Getting the cat to target the ball
Set up the cat for success by selecting a ball that fits into her mouth, in a texture your cat has already experienced. Grab a clicker and some treats your cat loves. If you are new to clicker training, don’t worry. The first step for teaching fetch is to get the cat to realize that the ball is the object you want her to focus on. So hold the ball in your fingers about 6 inches away from your cat’s face. When the cat sniffs it or touches it with her nose, click and offer a treat. Repeat until your cat is looking for the ball as soon as she is done eating the treat.
Step 2: Getting the cat to place her open mouth on the ball
Once you are to the point of your cat touching the ball every time it is shown, then hold off on clicking when your cat touches the ball. The cat will then stop, look at you and think about what to do next. The next behavior you are going to click is her open mouth touching the ball. Your cat will think about why she didn’t get a click when she touched the ball and then try something else, such as a slightly opened mouth on the ball. Watch for this and as soon as it happens, click then treat. If this was session one for you, I would stop at this point. Cheer for yourself and your cat. The success is a result of both of your efforts.
Step 3: Getting the cat to place her mouth on the ball and grab
Get your clicker, cat treats and ball ready. Hold the ball out again, and when your cat touches it with an open mouth, click then treat. Keep doing this until the cat is consistently offering the behavior of putting her open mouth on the ball. I would watch a few things at this point. Sometimes people struggle over when to move from one step to the next. There is a balance between staying on one step too long and not staying long enough. One of the ways to evaluate this is to move forward. If you move forward and your cat is not successful after giving her plenty of time to try the new behavior, you may have gone too far too fast. Go back a step. My recommendation is that you keep pushing your cat into the next step and pay attention to how she performs.
Step 4: Getting the cat to grab the ball from the ground
To start this, I recommend you change the position of the ball from your hand to the ground. Place the ball in front of you on the ground. When your cat touches the ball (with closed mouth or open), click and treat. When your cat is eating the treat, take the ball away, then offer it again at another spot on the floor. Once your cat is touching the ball every time it is offered, then you can change the expectations to having her touch it with an open mouth. Monitor any frustration in your cat as you move from one step to the next. If she walks away from the session, back up and realize that she needs more time on the previous step.
Step 5: Picking up the ball
Place the ball on the ground and wait for the cat to place her open mouth on the ball and either roll it or bite enough to move the ball. Click then treat for either of these behaviors your cat offers. Again, when the cat is offering biting and pickup (even it if is for just a second), click then treat. Then, start working on clicking when the ball is in the mouth and toward the end of the pickup. In the beginning of this step it will be super quick, but as you progress you will notice your cat keeping the ball in her mouth longer. After you get your cat to pick up the ball and hold it in her mouth for about 10 seconds, then you can move on to step 6.
Step 6: Bringing the ball back to you
Place the ball a bit farther away from you, such as behind your cat. Your cat will turn, pick up the ball and turn toward you, at which point you then click and offer a treat. Keep doing this while moving the ball a bit farther away from you each time. Now you have the behavior of fetch. Not only does your cat know fetch, but you both had fun in the process.
By: Matthew LevienFeatured Image: By Tony Harrison/Flickr
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