What are the key steps needed to teach my cat to come to a whistle?
As with any behavior you try to teach a cat, including learning his own name, you must associate the whistle with a positive benefit in the cat’s mind. Remember, however, that cats don’t “perform” in the same way that dogs to.
A dog will do something for the pure pleasure of pleasing the leader of his pack — you. Dogs are social creatures and being cooperative and contributory are part of their make up. Cats, on the other hand are rank individualists.
Nature designed the cat to be a solitary predator, so he’s constantly weighing effort against return. Good hunters don’t waste their time and talents on things they can’t catch, or that aren’t good to eat.
If you are going to whistle for your cat to come to you and reward him by feeding him, then you have to supply the food every single time you whistle. If the benefit is taken away, the cat will no longer come when you whistle.
There’s really nothing more to the lesson than whistling and calling the cat’s name at the same time you shake the sack of dry food or run the can opener. Many cats will come faster for the can opener than their own name anyway. Their response isn’t to the sound, but to what the sound means for them — chow.
The perceived benefit of the whistle doesn’t have to be food, but treats are the most reliable reinforcement for any learned behavior. Since cats are most active and in hunting “mode” around dawn and just before dusk, those are good times to start associating the call to dinner with a whistle.
If you have to use the whistle at other times of the day, perhaps to locate the cat when he’s pulled one of those kitty disappearing acts at the back of the linen closet, remember to hand out a little treat of some kind when the cat responds.