One of the most common questions people ask me while I take out my cat, Archer, out on an adventure is, “How did you train him?!”
Whenever I receive this question, I always ponder and reflect on our journey together – amazed by what Archer has achieved; the total comfort and confidence of walking in a harness and leash. So, I can’t wait to share our experiences and lessons learned with you!
Before I get started, it is important to note that having the right style and fit of harness is key! The OneTigris Claw Enforcement Harness is specifically designed for small pets, and is the perfect size for cats. This harness allows you to adjust the straps on the neck and waist to ensure the best fit for your cat’s body, which could suit almost all shapes and sizes of cats to provide more comfort and mobility. In addition, the length of the harness does not cover your cat’s belly, and it will not restrict their movements to help them walk more freely. Archer had the opportunity to try out the harness during our hike to a beautiful waterfall. Based on that excursion, this harness has definitely become one of our favourites!
Now, let’s get into how I trained Archer to be a total adventure cat!
There are 4 main components to prepare them:
How to Help Your Cat Feel Comfortable in a Harness
How to Guide Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
How to Familiarize Your Cat with their Cat Backpack
How to Introduce Your Cat to Outdoor Environments
1. How to Help Your Cat Feel Comfortable in a Harness
One of the biggest challenges cat owners face when they initially bring a harness to a cat is actually for them to accept wearing it. As we all know, cats are naturally magicians who can “Houdini” themselves out of almost any object; thus, it’s impossible to force a cat to wear a harness against their own will without them performing their magic tricks! In other scenarios, cats would freeze and drop to the ground refusing to move while wearing this contraption. As a result, it is critical to note that as cat owners, you need to make sure that your cat is associating the harness as a positive experience.
First, put the harness over your cat’s head without tightening or buckling it, let them try it out and observe their reactions. In the meantime, give them treats as a form of encouragement. Of course, if your cat starts to show severe signs of distress or anxiety, stop the training immediately, but do try again at a later time. Just keep in mind that practice and repetition will help them feeling desensitized of the harness.
Then, use a wand toy to divert your cat’s attention by playing with them while wearing the harness untightened and unbuckled. Continue to give them more treats as a reward for the experience (also, a little bribery goes a long way!).
Once your cat is feeling more comfortable with the harness, try to slowly adjust the straps and buckle the harness. Give them more treats and keep playing with them with the harness on, so that they associate the training as a fun and exciting experience! The rule of thumb for fitting a harness is that you should allow one finger or so to fit underneath the neck and girth/chest area to ensure it is not too tight or loose. For more details on the fit and size of harnesses, check out the section How to Measure Your Cat for the Right Harness Size in my previous blog.
Since every cat is different, the amount time and practice required will vary depending on their personality, age, and comfort zone. The entire process may take more time for some cats, but do consistently repeat the exercise on different days until your cat feels more comfortable with the harness. Our goal for the training is to integrate the harness into your cat’s daily routines, such as, eat, sleep, and play, to ease them into the feeling of constraint on their body.
Now that I have shared my tips on harness training, it’s time for a funny story of Archer. I’m sure he won’t mind the embarrassment! When Archer first arrived to our home, he was a very curious and inquisitive kitten. We knew he wanted to go outside in the backyard but were worried that he would sneak under the fence or get lost without supervision. Therefore, I brought home a harness and put it on him right away. Then, I immediately opened the backyard door, which startled him and resulting him to flop like a fish on the ground! It was quite hilarious and dramatic to watch! In hindsight, I had very limited knowledge on how to harness and leash train a cat, and I should have eased him into the harness instead of expecting him to walk in it from day one.
2. How to Guide Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
Once your cat is feeling more comfortable in a harness, let me share how I trained Archer to walk on a leash! At the end of the day, taking your cat outside won’t be a lot of fun if they can’t explore freely on a leash, isn’t it?!
A common feedback I often receive from cat owners who are new to harness and leash training is, “my cat just flops on the ground, and they won’t move even if I tug the leash.” Again, keep in mind that cats could be stubborn creatures and cannot be forced into doing something. Therefore, simply pulling or tugging the leash will not convince them to move forward.
One important tip I have for you is to USE TREATS! What a surprise, right?! Treats are crucial as part of the training because it can help them to feel rewarded for the experience; at the same time, encourage them to move forward to a certain direction.
In fact, when you are out exploring with your feline companion, you will notice that you are NOT walking your cat; rather, they are actually walking you! Most of the time, they will go to any direction that pique their interest, and you are just a wrangler who are trying to guide them to the right path.
Here are some techniques you could try at home to help your cat move forward on a leash. While your cat is wearing the harness with leash:
Put down little treats spread apart in a row, and stand at the end of the treats. Lower your body to the ground and call their name; try to encourage them to walk towards you.
Use a toy to capture their attention so they will move forward on a leash.
Keep practicing walk them on a leash by visiting various locations in your home or going up and down the stairs. Once your cat starts walking, begin to guide them to a direction by keeping the leash tight and lightly tug the leash; use key words, like “come here” or “stop”, to instruct and direct them.
3. How to Familiarize Your Cat with their Cat Backpack
Before we get into actually taking your cat outside for a stroll, I want to set the expectation that taking a cat out on leash is NOT the same as dogs. Cats will not be able to walk continuously like dogs do, and they will need a safe place to rest and retreat when they are tired or uncomfortable with their surroundings. As a result, a cat backpack becomes their “safe haven” when they are outside, and it is one of the key necessities for taking your cat outside.
In order to introduce your cat to the outdoor environment, they must be familiar with their cat backpack first. Given that cats usually enjoy sitting in small spaces like boxes, it shouldn’t be a huge challenge to get them comfortable with the bag.
Leave the backpack with zippers opened in an area of your home completely visible, and let your cat explore in and out of it to mark their scents on the fabric. You could also try to give them treats and play with them around the backpack, to encourage them getting more familiar with it. Eventually, your cat will feel that the item belongs to them, and might even be comfortable enough to sleep inside!
4. How to Introduce Your Cat to Outdoor Environments
After weeks (most likely months) of training, you and your feline companion are finally ready for the outdoors; now it’s time to test your skills in the real world! Since most cats have stayed indoors the majority of their lives, the outer world could be a SCARY place for them! Yes, all the unfamiliar sounds and sights; such as, cars, bicycles, people, or dogs, are terrifying! As a result, it is vital to ensure they are properly introduced to new environment before starting your exploration together; this could avoid any unexpected incidents while you are outside.
The first training is to introduce your cat to the noises outside; put the harness and leash on your cat, and keep them inside the backpack so that they are in their safe space. Bring them to an outdoor area closest to your home, such as, a front porch or backyard, and leave the backpack out to let your cat observe, smell, and listen to the new environment outside. In the process of supervision, monitor their reactions and speak to them in soft tones with positive words of encouragement.
Repeat the exercise multiple times a week, and feel free to go out for a neighbourly stroll with your cat inside the backpack until they feel more confident with the noises outside. Most of the time, they will let you know when they are ready to get out of the backpack. Even if the cat isn’t walking on their own yet, the visual, auditory and smell stimulation would keep them excited!
Then, open the zippers of the backpack to create a visible opening, and let your cat come out of the bag on its own. Keep a close distance and continue give them pets, treats, and words of encouragement to boost their confidence. Once your cat is confident enough to climb out of the backpack, they will automatically start investigating their surroundings that interest them.
Finally, bring your cat to a quiet location, such as a nearby park or trail, and let them explore freely on a leash. Stay alert and observant of their body language to ensure they are comfortable with the new surroundings. At the same time, keep in mind that it is completely natural for cats to be spooked by various things like passing dogs, big birds, kids, runners, bicycles, or cars. As a result, always stay close to them, continue to provide positive reinforcement, and be prepared to help them go back into the backpack. Keep practicing going out together to help them build more confidence in various environment.
Training a cat does take a significant amount of time, dedication, and patience, but it can definitely be a rewarding experience for the both of you! Therefore, don’t forget to celebrate the small milestones together and NEVER give up!
In conclusion, I want to leave you with these final thoughts.
Every cat is different in their journey, so try not to benchmark your cat with any other cats.
Stay alert while you are outside, and observe your cat’s body language for signs of fear or anxiety.
Patience is a virtue! Practice, Practice, and Practice!