Swooner has been with us a year now. It seems incredible but that emaciated sliver of a cat is now a big bouncing boy.

Kittens are notorious for being easily distracted. One second they’re ripping apart a feather duster, and the next they’re totally taken up by a ribbon. The world is full of fascinating things, and everything must be explored instantly.

However, when we noticed Swooner was learning to keep his focus, we decided it was time for an important lesson: to come when you’re called.

Training hungry strays is fairly easy. You take a tin of cat biscuits, shake it as you call, and then immediately feed them when the kitties show up. They soon associate the sound with food, and come running.

The thing about pets is that they’re not hungry and so they might easily hear the shake and say, “Meow for the thought but I’m good” – and then go off and do something more interesting.

So pet training involves a more intimate knowledge of cat behaviour.

First, to get your pet to come when you call, you have to make sure that every experience is positive. The idea is that coming to you means getting something they really like. This can be a treat, a cuddle, a tummy rub, a game with a ribbon … anything your pet loves.

It’s vital to instill it in them that they always get a warm welcome – even if they’re slow or late. Because the second you hit your pet or scream at them, they’ll instantly associate you with trouble.

To get the habit formed, you should start with situations where your pet is always going to do the right thing. I started about two weeks ago, when I spotted Swooner sitting in the street, not doing anything.

Swooner

Swooner in a relaxed mood, inviting cuddles. Photo: Ellen Whyte

Standing about 10 steps from him, I called, pitching my voice so it would travel, and elongating the vowels in his name, “Swoooooooooooner!”

Our kitten looked at me immediately, and meowed back at me. That was pawsome, but he didn’t come over. So I took two steps towards him and called him again. Then I leaned down, and reached out as if I wanted to pet him.

Swooner loves cuddles so he rolled over on his back – but, as he hadn’t moved, he was out of reach. Undaunted, I took another step closer, and called again. Being a willing boy, he got up and took a step towards me. That put him within reach, so I instantly stroked his ears, picked him up and cuddled him, lavishing the praise, “You are the bestest, most wonderful cat efur.”

He liked that, and purred all the way home. Over the next few days, I repeated the exercise, rewarding him with cuddles, treats and ribbon games. While he saw fun, I saw it as offering reinforcement to encourage him into the right habit.

Swooner was doing very well, and I was quite proud of him. Then, two nights ago when I called, I got a loud “Meow” but there was no kitten. The meow came back again, loud and urgent. Sensing trouble, I went into the street.

My poor kitten was backed up against a skip box, cornered by Twinkletoes, one of the biggest tomcat bruisers in the district. Swooner looked up at me, tail furred up like a bottle brush, and screamed a panicked, “Meow-rr!” I rushed over, and put my hand on his shoulder, stroking the shaking fur. Twinkletoes and I are old friends, so I shooed him away with a stern, “Go home, you big bully.”

Target

Target, alert and standing guard. He recently had a hair-raising encounter with his neighbour, Twinkletoes. Photo: Ellen Whyte

Swooner was fine, watching with relief as Twinkletoes snuck behind the skip. It was then that I saw Target marching up the road.

Looking determined, Target made straight for the skip. He adores these containers as he’s always hoping to find a mouse in one.

Of course, this time my senior cat didn’t realise he was walking straight into Twinkletoes’ path. I went to intercept but it was too late. He and Twinkletoes were face to face, backs up and growling at each other like two witches’ animal guides.

I couldn’t reach past the skip so I called to Target. “Come on, fuzzle, this way.” Over time, I’ve learned to pretend that all is well, just to get him to calm down. And the pet names sound silly, but he loves being my kitten-ker- squeazle.

Target took a step back and looked at me. The second he broke eye contact, Twinkletoes was in the drain, scampering towards his home. Target came to me, got his cuddle and praise. Then, with Target on one side, and Swooner on the other, the three of us marched up the road. We swept Guido up in our wake, and went to have dinner.

Me, I was thinking that discipline is really tested at moments like these and I was thankful it worked. Then Swooner came to sit with me, and from his purrs, I knew he was blessing himself for having a human on call when faced with big furry trouble, too.

Cat communication and training takes planning and lots of patience but it is simple enough and it pays off in spades. For both sides!


Use treats and praise to reward your cat’s behaviour

It’s a curious thing. If you are trying to force the creation of a habit, it’s a good thing to be consistent in your attitude and to always reward. But once the behaviour is learned, it’s important to stay consistent in attitude but to not always present a reward.

The idea is this: your pet knows that if he comes to you when called, you will be happy. If you are only happy once, and then angry, your pet will become confused about what the “right” behaviour is. So your attitude has to be consistent in order to avoid giving mixed messages.

Always praise when the cat comes, even if it’s taken an hour. Each time you are too tired to do it right, or you lose your temper, you are messing up your programme and setting the two of you back.

Rewards are clear signals that your pet is doing it right. Treat-training is easy but it is best to alternate with non-food rewards because when your pet learns the behaviour, you need to switch gears.

For one thing, it’s practically impossible to give a reward each and every time as your pet may live up to 20 years, and you will be running through the behaviour thousands of times, if not more. So have an arsenal of “rewards”, of which treats are just one.

Also, once the behaviour is a habit, you don’t need to reward every time. If you keep to a pattern, like reinforcing every second time, your pet will learn how it works, and will stop responding – because pets aren’t dumb! However, if you gradually switch to intermittent reinforcement, your pet will keep doing what you want, in the expectation that the reinforcement will resume.

This paradigm has been studied extensively in all kinds of animals, humans too, and it’s consistent across species.

So, keep it gentle and positive; don’t give mixed messages; and when the behaviour starts coming, use fewer treats and more praise.

When the behaviour is thoroughly learned, accept it as normal, but still tell your pet often how good they are. Because let’s face it; we are the centre of their furry universe. They need to feel the love.