Sebastian, our one-year-old Siamese is…unmotivated. He loves to play rough-n-tumble with his brother Valentino, but shows little interest in toys. He’s also picky with food and treats. So I gave up on the idea of training him quite a while ago. It wasn’t until I dug up an old freebie bag of feline Greenies that Sebastian began to show us what he was actually capable of. I used some applied psychology techniques.
First I gave him non-contingent reinforcement. Meaning he was getting treats for everything..for meowing, for head-butting me…anything. I just wanted him to be interested in the treat.
Second, I started withholding. Making him wait more between rewards–making him crave it.
Third, I began to lift my hand over his head with the treat clearly placed in my fingertips for him to see and smell and then I’d wait for him to drop his rump. This actually happens quite naturally if you dangle the treat directly above his head so that he actually has to look up at it.
Fourth step is to start pairing the action with the reward, so when he does drop his rump, praise and immediately deliver the reward (which in this case was a Greenie). It’s important to reward vocally immediately after he does the desired action (sit). He will quickly pair this with a correct action. Delivering the treat can take a few milliseconds longer (e.g. taking it out of the bag or your pocket). Might sound strange, but even those milliseconds count. So make sure you get your praise in right away.
Fifth step, you’re almost there, is to pair the vocal command with the gestural prompt (e.g. placing your hand with the treat above his head) and the corresponding correct response. So, what does this look like?
- Ensure that you have your cats attention (e.g. he’s making eye contact, rubbing on you).
- Call him toward you or walk up to him and show him you have a treat in your hand.
- Once he is enticed, pull the treat over his head (where it is still visible) and clearly say “SIT”. Wait.
- If the cat sits, yay! Immediately praise and deliver treat.
If your cat does not sit, try a few things:
a. wait him out, eventually his rump may drop. If this happens, reinforce, but not at such a high rate of intensity (e.g. Ok, here’s your treat +pat on head)
b. If your cat clearly doesn’t get what you’re asking him to do, you have to reteach. Start at the First Step and work your way up again.
*NOTE: Your cat must be able to drop his rump with relative ease to perform this trick. If it’s not something natural him, perhaps he’d be better suited for another trick. After all, cat is as cat does.
Lastly, practice, and practice frequently. Cats are apt to choose to forget things. Also, what was once motivating may change. But if you have cats, you know the joy is in loving them, stubborn little creatures though they can be. 🙂
Check out the video below to see Sebastian’s training in action: