target training

Target Training for Cats

Targeting is a foundational behavior for training any type of animal, from bears and eagles to dogs and rabbits. If you have attended an animal show at a zoo, you may have seen a sea lion touch his nose to buoy at the end of a stick. That’s called targeting when an animal touches a part of their body to a particular object. It is often one of the first behaviors that animal trainers teach because it is simple and incredibly useful for teaching other behaviors. And yes, target training even works for cats!

Benefits of Target Training for Cats

Training new behaviors is wonderful enrichment for cats. It gets them moving and exercising, using their mind, and excited to figure out how to earn treats. It is also a great way for you to bond with your cat through positive interactions.

A more subtle benefit is how training can boost an animal’s confidence. Training empowers them to have control by choosing to perform behaviors that will earn them good things like treats. Once they learn a behavior like targeting, it can be used to make scary situations more positive. If your cat hides when visitors come to your house or cowers at the vet office, try asking them for a few targets. Giving them a specific action with a known positive outcome can reduce stress in these contexts.

How to Train a Target Behavior

You need to prepare three tools before your first training session with your cat. First, you will choose a target that your cat will touch her nose to. Since most of us do not have specialized buoys at home, a target can be anything. You might simply use your pointer finger or open palm. The advantage of using your hand is that you don’t need to keep track of an extra piece of equipment. You can also choose to use an object that the cat will clearly associate with targeting, like a paper plate, pencil, or tennis ball at the end of a dowel. I’ve even seen someone use a miniature baseball bat – you can get creative!

Second, you will prepare treats that your cat will work to earn. Every cat has their own preferences, so it might take some experimenting to find the type of treat that she will go crazy for. The go-to for many cat trainers is lickable wet treats in a tube, like Churu. You can also try crunchy treats, canned wet food, or pieces of lunchmeat. 

Finally, you need to choose a sound to tell your cat when they’ve done the right behavior. Clickers, popularized in dog training, are great tools for this. You can also use the click of a pen or make a click sound with your tongue. This sound essentially tells the cat, “that’s right! A treat is coming.”

Once you have those three tools set up, you are ready to train your cat! Remember that cats tend to prefer short training sessions, so you might break this into multiple sessions. If your cat struggles at any point, just go back to practice the previous step.

  1. If this is your cat’s first time training, practice first with the clicker. Click, then offer a treat. Repeat a few times. This will get her used to the sound and she will learn that the click means a treat is coming.
  2. Hold your target a few inches from her nose. Cats are naturally curious and will likely sniff the new object. When her nose touches the target, click, then offer a treat. Repeat a few times. (If your cat doesn’t reach for the target, you can encourage a sniff by putting a small amount of wet food or catnip on it. After a few repetitions, you can fade out the luring scent.)
  3. Once she has the hang of that, hold the target farther away so she has to take a step to reach it. When her nose touches the target, click, then offer a treat.
  4. Now try holding the target at greater distances and different directions. Continue to click and treat every time her nose touches the target.

Other Behaviors to Train with a Target

Once your cat understands how to use the target, you can use it to teach many other behaviors by luring them into certain locations or positions. The target can remain as part of the final behavior, or you can fade the target and replace it with a unique cue. These are just a few ways you can utilize a simple targeting behavior:

  • Jump up to a surface – by holding the target at an elevated perch, you can teach your cat to jump up and down. Use it as a workout or as a force-free way to get your cat off the kitchen counter.
  • Stationing – use the target to lead the cat to a station spot where you want them to sit for a period of time. This might be a rug, mat, or cat tree perch where they can stay while you prepare dinner without tripping over them.
  • Carrier training – the target can lead the cat into their carrier. No more struggling to squeeze them in before a vet visit!
  • Scale – lead your cat onto a scale to record regular weights and track their health.
  • Tricks – teach fun tricks like stand up, spin, or weave between your legs by using the target to guide them through the motions.

If you would like help with targeting and creating training plans for your cat, contact us at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.

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