Because I have been a therapy cat for quite a while now — over three years! — lots of people ask my human about how to train their cats to do therapy work. And my human is always happy to oblige because she wants to see more therapy cats out there, helping humans who are sick or in facilities. And there is a lot to know — harness and leash training, acclimating the cat to busy, noisy public spaces, getting used to regular nail trims and baths, etc.
But there is one thing they never ask about, and it’s actually a crucial part of therapy cat training: creating a rock-solid bond between the cat and their human.
The human-animal bond in therapy work is very important because on a visit, the human is basically acting as the animal’s bodyguard and support system. The animal has to know their human has their back, and that they will be safe no matter what. Because dogs are more trusting and are comfortable with a hierarchy, it’s fairly easy to establish this type of a bond, which goes a couple of steps beyond the regular dog-human relationship. With cats, it’s more difficult — and more crucial.
We kitties are both self-reliant (at least we think so), and a bit suspicious. We normally don’t like to trust someone else with our safety. That’s why many cats get upset at even the thought of going to the vet, and their humans often can’t calm them. Even though the cat loves her human, she is afraid of what is going to happen and does not believe her human will protect her.
The truth is there is really no specific way to train a cat to trust her human implicitly, and create that bond. It is built over time and experience. I had lots of practice going to other places before I got my therapy cat certification. My human and I traveled to countless cat shows, often in other cities or states, went to a bunch of pet stores, and we even have been to another country. Sure, I started off with a cool temperament and good disposition, but it was up to my human to show me that no matter where we went, she was looking out for me.
Even though this bond can’t really be taught, it needs to be learned. It’s one of those enigmas of the cat-human relationship. And it’s perhaps the most important part of therapy cat training.