Training Cats, Part Two: Leash walking
For the Tribune
Training Cats Part One discussed recall and crate training. Using the same positive reinforcement principles, tasty tidbits and patience cats can be trained to walk with you on outings you both enjoy. Clicker training is especially effective for cats and can be adapted to leash walking. The key is to discover the food treat that is most appealing to your cat and to present it immediately when there is a correct response to a verbal or clicker cue. One trainer discovered that her cat responded well to the softer sound of a ball point pen click.
Cat walking gear includes a variety of harness or halter designs. Collars can be tugged off and are not good for leash walking. Harnesses are designed to stay on the cat and avoid choking.
Figure Eight harnesses are the most common design for cats. They tighten when the cat tugs and are virtually escape proof. Alternative H-Harness styles, including some toy dog-size harnesses, can work as well. In any case, the harness should be fitted to allow only two fingers between harness and cat. The harness must be snug so the cat does not discover it can escape or, if startled, the cat can be controlled and protected.
A good leash is made of light fabric, so it does not feel like a weight to the cat. Dog leashes are too heavy. Optimum leash length is 6-feet and shorter. Avoid retractable leashes which allow the pet to get too far away for safely.
The first step in training is to ask the cat to accept the harness. For awhile, leave the harness and leash where the cat will come upon it. Let him or her become familiar with the gear. Rubbing the cat’s scent onto the equipment by petting with it creates a positive smell. Felines sniff to explore and depend on smell more than any other sense. Catnip can be rubbed on the harness and leash, and they can be dragged like a toy to be pounced upon. Take time to let the cat accept the equipment.
After a few days, try putting the halter on loosely without the leash. If he or she flops on the floor or freezes, use the leash as a distracting plaything to be chased. The cat will discover that the harness is not a straight jacket. It allows movement. A toy such as a feather or cat dancer can be a distraction leading the cat to realize it’s possible to move and play with the harness on.
Proceed just a few minutes at a time until one day the cat accepts the halter as a play time or treat time signal. Only then attach the leash, letting it drag behind kitty indoors while you supervise to make sure it does not get caught on anything. Then, pick the leash end up, keeping it slack and following where your cat goes.
The key is to let the cat think he is in charge, going where he wants with no direction from you. Don’t jerk on the leash but guide gently. If the cat reverts and resists, turn the session back into playtime and proceed slowly again to acceptance.
Eventually you can venture outside, at first sitting on the porch while kitty absorbs the noises and smells, building to real walks in tandem. Never leave a cat outside on a “tie out.” Even if the cat does not escape it can become tangled, attacked by domestic and wild animals, and traumatized forever.
Kittens are likely to take to harness and leash quickly. They tend to follow along as they would follow their mother. Older cats will take more time, but as long as they learn that there are rewards like treats and praise attached, they come around.
Leash walking provides mental stimulation for indoor-only cats and relief for cats who were formerly outdoor cats. It builds on the bond between cat and owner while it offers shared pleasure. Remember to talk to your cat during the process and on the walk. Your voice can be calming and cats do like to talk back. Once leash trained, trips to the veterinarian can become much easier as well.
To review Training Cats Part 1, go to http://www.tahoedailytribune.com in the Community section.
– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and SPCA.
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