National High Five Day is April 21st - How to Teach Your Cat to High Five

National High Five Day takes place on the third Thursday of each April. In 2022, it will be on April 21st! This is a fun, simple holiday that’s all about giving high fives and spreading good vibes.

Cute Bengal cat high fives owner's hand with paw.

Once you've taught your cat to high five, the possibilities for new tricks can be endless.

Sure, you can celebrate it by high-fiving your human friends and family throughout the day, but what could be more fun than sharing the day with your cat?

We know what you’re thinking. Cats can’t learn tricks! Actually, they absolutely can. One of the easiest tricks to teach your cat is to give you a high five. From there, you can move into low fives, high tens, and even fist bumps. The possibilities are endless with the power of positive reinforcement and a pet training clicker.

To get started, you’ll need a clicker and your cat’s favorite treats. Depending on what method you choose, you may also need a target stick or a small cup (like a medicine cup or shot glass). Positive reinforcement works by giving your cat something he wants (treats) in order to increase the frequency of a behavior (high fives). Think of the clicker like a camera: you want to click at the exact moment that the behavior you like occurs, just like you’d snap a photo at that perfect moment when everyone in the picture is smiling. The clicker is a marker that tells the cat, “Good job! I liked that.” After every click, a reinforcer must follow. This means that every time you click (even if it’s by accident) you must give your cat a treat. More about target sticks later on.

Start out by teaching your cat that the clicker predicts good things. Don’t ask him to do anything. Just click and treat, click and treat, click and treat over and over. This is called “charging up the clicker.” After your cat has gotten the hang of the concept, there are then several ways to teach him to give you a high five. We're giving you two options for how to train this behavior – the target stick method and the plastic cup method.

Target Stick Method

A target stick can be anything, from a pencil, to a chopstick, to a fancy one that you purchase online. Say you’re using a pencil. Hold the eraser end out an inch or two in front of your cat’s nose. He will likely lean forward to investigate. When his nose touches the target, click and give him a treat. Repeat several times until you can hold the target further and further away, and he will follow to touch it with his nose.

A child and pet Ginger playing with pencil is a way to teach your cat to high five.

Offer positive reinforcement by giving your cat treats as he learns.

Once he has figured out that concept, we are going to up the criteria. Hold the pencil slightly up above his nose and a few inches out of reach. You’ll start to see the gears turning in his head! Most mildly frustrated cats will at this point try to bat at it with their paw, or grab it with their paw to bring it closer to their nose. If this happens, perfect! Click and reinforce with a treat. Repeat until he is clear that we have now switched from nose to paw.

Now we’ve got the high five motion down, but obviously, we don’t want our cats high-fiving the end of a pencil! Slowly move your hand further and further down until it’s close to the eraser. Hold the pencil between your thumb and forefinger with your palm facing the cat. If his paw touches your hand at all, let’s give him a jackpot reward, meaning lots of extra treats following the click. His paw touching your hand is the end goal, after all, so let’s make it very much worth his while.

Over time, you will fade the pencil away and ask your cat just to touch your open hand with his paw. Voila! High five! Your cue will simply be to hold up your hand in front of your cat, but you can also begin to say “high five” as he is reaching for your hand to also put it on a verbal cue.

Plastic Cup Method

This method is maybe a little simpler on your part, but some cats may struggle to figure it out and become frustrated, especially if they have never done clicker training before. If you are having a hard time with this method, try the target stick method instead.

Woman and Tabby cat playing with cup to teach her cat to high five

Teach your furbaby to reach up using a cup containing a treat inside.

Start by placing a treat inside your cup. Any type of cup works, as long as the cat can see the treat inside but can’t stick his head in to reach it. A shot glass is generally perfect. Hold the cup up, right below the cat’s eye level, and allow him the chance to figure out how to get to the delicious treat inside. The second he lifts up his paw to try to use it to reach inside, click and give him the treat from the cup.

Place a new treat inside the cup, and repeat. At first, it’s okay if he just lifts up his paw a little bit, but as you continue to practice, you’ll want him to be actually touching the cup with his paw. Gradually shift your hand holding the cup so that you are holding it in a “high five” position behind the cup (with as many fingers up as possible).

Once your cat is very good at this, you can take the treat out of the cup. From there, you can remove the cup entirely and just hold up your hand. And there you have it – a perfect high five!

Troubleshooting

  • My cat won’t touch the target stick with his nose. Try dabbing a little bit of Hartz Delectables Squeeze Ups on the end of the stick. He won’t be able to resist touching it after that!
  • My cat isn’t interested in food. You may not be using food that is of high enough value to your cat. For most cats, the kibble or basic treats they get every day aren’t motivating enough. Look for something special! You’d work harder for homemade, freshly baked cookies out of the oven than you would for the ones in the package from the grocery store, right? The same concept applies to training your cat. For some cats, play is more motivating than food. If you’re using the target stick method, try rewarding your cat with about 15-20 seconds of playtime instead of a treat instead.
  • My cat is afraid of the clicker. Clickers are more effective as a marker than verbal markers because they make a novel sound. Your cat probably doesn’t ever hear that noise outside of a training session. But they hear you talk constantly, and they learn to tune you out to an extent. That being said, you can use a word like “yes” or “good” in place of the clicker, but expect learning to go more slowly for this reason. A marker can be any sound as well, such as a whistle, a finger snap, a beep – it doesn’t matter!
  • My cat isn’t interested in training. This may be because you are not using a reinforcer that is valuable enough to your cat, as discussed above. It could also be that your training sessions are too long. Generally, most cats can’t handle more than 5 to 10 minutes of training at a time. Teaching your cat to give a high five will probably not happen immediately or in one day. Expect to work on this with your cat over a couple of training sessions, likely 3 to 5, until he really gets it and you’ve reached your end goal.

Get out there and give us your best high fives!

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