You come home from school ready for a good game of catch. Your faithful pal bounds across the room, drops the ball neatly in your hand, and starts to ... purr.
Whoa, hold the scratching post! Everyone knows you can't train cats. Cats train people. That's how it works.
Well, not quite. Turns out cats will work for one thing: food.
"Cats are very individual," says Karen Thomas. She's a trainer with Critters of the Cinema, a Los Angeles-based company. "Unlike dogs, who want to make you happy, cats want to make themselves happy first." The company trains everything from cockroaches to elephants to be movie stars. Karen has trained cats to walk a high-wire, slam-dunk a basketball, and play a (baby) baby grand piano.
Her secret? Train at suppertime.
That worked with our cat Zeke, a Maine coon cat who clocks in around 15 pounds. My husband, Brian, taught him to hug people. First, Brian would put a cat treat above his own shoulder. Zeke would stand on his hind legs and brace his front paws on Brian's shoulders to get the treat.
Eventually, all Brian had to do was tap his shoulders, and Zeke would put his paws around Brian's neck (after checking to make sure there was a treat handy, of course).
Unlike Karen's cats, however, who played an audience of several hundred at Boston's Bayside Exposition Center last month, Zeke doesn't like the limelight. When we try to show visitors his trick, Zeke stares at us as though we have spiders coming out of our ears and disdainfully trots off.
Not every cat will do every trick, says Terri Dillistin, another trainer. You have to choose tricks that fit your cat's personality: A lazy cat, for example, would probably prefer waving a paw (from a comfy sitting position) to a high-octane game of catch.
Zoe, a little black-and-white ball of energy, is Karen and Terri's acrobat. She jumps hurdles, climbs ladders, and walks a high-wire (a blue pillow is placed underneath just in case). She's far more active than the regal Gimmel, a fluffy veteran of both the big and small screens.
The silver Persian, who will appear in this summer's "Stuart Little" movie, is a cultured cat who enjoys playing the piano (complete with candelabra). Gimmel will delicately place a paw in a crystal dish on command.
Sometimes, a cat will learn something for itself. For example, does your cat have a sonar-like ability to hear a can opener from six miles away? Well, your cat has learned that the can-opener sound means food. That's why she comes zooming into the kitchen the instant she hears it. To train her, you just need her to associate other sounds (clicking noises, voice commands) with dinner.
If a cat thinks there's something in it for him, he'll do tricks that would put Lassie to shame.
For example, Zeke is a big believer in fresh air and exercise. He'd go in and out the door 20 times a day if he could.
When our beagle was a puppy, Brian trained him to ring a bell to let us know when he needed to go out. Brian would show him a treat, put the treat just outside the door, and shut it. He'd gently take the puppy's paw and ring the bell. Then he'd open the door and give him the treat. Before we opened the door to take the puppy out, we'd make him ring the bell first. Our puppy soon learned that when the bell rang, the door opened.
Zeke watched the dog ringing frantically for a couple of days until he figured out the score. Then one evening, he sauntered over to the door, gave the bell a swipe with his front paw, and waited expectantly for one of us to come running.
One problem: "When [a cat's] tummy gets full, they tend to clock out," Terri says. Then "you need to bring in a new tummy."
It takes three to five cats to film a 30-second commercial. In true Hollywood fashion, cat actors have stunt doubles. For example, Terri and Karen are training two new cats: Ron and Harvey. The redheads are identical down to their fluffy tails and the M's on their foreheads. That way, if one cat gets tired (or full) there's always someone waiting in the wings.