Find food that fits your pet’s needs
Find a dog food that fits your pet’s needs
Find a cat food that fits your pet’s needs
Yes, you read that title correctly — cats can fetch just like dogs can, and maybe even better. Apart from impressing your neighbours and friends, it’s a really great way for you and your cat to have fun and spend some quality time together. Read on to discover how to teach a cat to fetch.
Think Like a Cat
Dogs are social animals who enjoy cooperating. Cats, however, are more independent and usually need to learn that cooperating can be advantageous. By realising this simple concept, you can understand why teaching a cat to fetch has to be approached differently from training your dog. When it comes to training a cat, there are some basic techniques that you must know in order to be successful. These basic principles all start with the letter "R," so that makes them a little easier to remember!
The Battersea Cats Home says that positive reinforcement is the best way to train your cat. This means teaching them to associate performing the desired action with a positive outcome. They recommend breaking down the end goal, i.e. fetching, into a series of smaller steps (e.g. chasing an object, biting an object, picking up an object and coming when called), and then recognising when your cat performs these steps. For example, you might start by just training your cat to come to you when you hold up the toy.
In order to reinforce the behaviour, you need to add a reward so that your cat is motivated to perform the trick. While food is usually a good choice, different cats prefer different things. Your cat may prefer a chin scratch, access to a specific toy or playing a particular game with you. If you use food, small treats are a great reward, but it’s important to deliver them consistently. If your cat suddenly doesn’t get a reward, they may be confused and lose interest! Pick a specific treat that your cat loves and use it only when your cat does the action you want them to. Keep treats small and don't overdo it so as to not add unwanted pounds.
Most importantly, you need to respect what cats do and don't like. Don't stare at your cat or make loud noises during training or playtime. When your cat doesn't feel up for play, don't force it. Try to train them when they’re feeling extra playful, which is usually around dawn and dusk, and around meal times when they are hungry.
Timing Is Everything
You have to get to know your cat and build a trusting and loving relationship before you can start training them to do tricks or play fetch. Figure out what toys or items in your house they're drawn to the most. These items are the ones you should try to use for playing fetch.
Cats are drawn to hunt and pounce on things. Throwing a soft item and allowing your cat to chase it, and then going over and placing a treat near the item, may reinforce and reward the first step in fetching. After a few days of successfully getting your cat to pounce or go near the item you throw, you are ready to attempt the next step: having them carry the toy in their mouth. Have a supply of treats ready and give a verbal cue (e.g. ‘yes’, ‘good’, ‘nice’ or even a tongue click) when your cat bites the object. Immediately (remember, timing is everything) give them a small treat.
In the beginning you want to mark (with a verbal cue) and then reinforce (reward) ANY mouthing or biting of the toy. Once your cat is offering this behaviour consistently, you can start to wait for them to bite it for a second longer before marking and reinforcing. Continue practising this and gradually increase the time until your cat is holding the toy in their mouth for a few seconds. Next you can combine this with the ‘recall’ command that you taught separately and voila! Your cat can now chase an object, pick it up and bring it back to you. Keep in mind, it is best to do all of this at a time of day when your cat is most active and playful.
If it seems like all of your attempts at training your cat to fetch have failed, take a break for a few days and then try again with new toys and different treats. You may need to break the sequence down even more and work on each part more slowly before putting them all together.
Each cat is an individual who has their own preferences and personality quirks. If fetch isn’t for your cat, there are plenty of other things that you can train them to do instead. As long as you are using positive reinforcement and force-free methods, you’ll be able to enjoy this fun bonding activity with your cat.
If you are successful, be sure to catch it on video so that all of your friends believe you! Everyone loves fun cat videos.
Image courtesy: Flickr/John Benson
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.
Reviewed by Dr. Aileen Pypers, BSc, BVSc, PGDip