African servals, exotic cats as pets

Serval Training
Crate Eepectations: Crate Training
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The ability to train is an essential skill for a serval owner.

Modern animal training methods make the process fun for both the animal and the trainer.

Positive reinforcement based methods developed by dolphin trainers get great results on servals and other exotic pets.

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You can approach this training task in two ways, depending towards your feline’s current attitude towards carriers.


If your cat is afraid of crates or just plain hates them, the best approach would be to use classical conditioning in the form of desensitization and counterconditioning. The initial training goals are to get the cat used to being around the crate (desensitization) and to change his emotional response to being crated from negative to positive (counterconditioning).

One approach to this is to simply put the crate in your cat’s living quarters and begin feeding him all of his meals in it. If he’s is reluctant to approach or enter the crate at first, place the food in the crate, leave the door open, and let him approach at will. If he will not come anywhere near the crate after several hours, remove the food from the crate and feed him near it. Over time, serve the food closer and closer until he is eating in the crate.

If your cat won’t approach when you are standing next to the crate because he’s afraid you’re going to lock him in, start by placing the food in the crate and retreating until you are far enough away for him to feel comfortable approaching. Note this distance and systematically decrease it by a foot or so each day until you are standing next to the crate.

After a while you should reach a point where your feline enters the crate as soon as you put the food in it. Pick a cue word for entering the crate, such as “Hop in,” or “Crate.” Your next step will be to put the food in the crate and close the door, locking the cat out. Wait a minute until the he starts sniffing or pawing at the crate wanting to get in. Then give your cue “Hop in” and open the door.

After you have done this for a while and your cat seems comfortable, you can start closing the door for short periods of time while he’s eating. The next step will be to place only a small amount of food in the crate, cue him to enter and open the door, and then lock him in. As soon as he finishes the food inside the crate, start feeding him the rest of the meal “through the bars.” This will start building positive associations not only with entering the crate but also with being shut inside it.

At first feed him rapidly, piece after piece, then let him out. But over time, you can stretch out the time between morsels of food until you are simply wandering up every five minutes or so and feeding him a treat.

If your cat has a strong aversion to one type of crate because of prior bad experiences, you might be able to save yourself a lot of work by simply getting a different kind of crate. If he hates plastic airline crates, try a wire one or vice versa.

Other ways to build up positive associations with the crate:

  • If the cat is kept outdoors, place a warm heating pad in the crate (SnuggleSafe disks can be heated in a microwave – no cords!) to make it the coziest spot in his den. In the summer, try ice in a towel.
  • Make a crate the cat’s den box temporarily so he gets used to resting in it and treating it as a safe haven when scared.
  • Play games with the crate, leading him inside it with a toy and letting him catch it inside the crate. You can also lock him in the crate and give him a favorite toy to play with.

When the cat will enter the crate voluntarily and is comfortable being confined in it, you may consider your counterconditioning complete. You can stop here if you like, or progress to the operant conditioning stage in order to teach him to enter the crate on cue when there isn’t any food in it.


If your cat is a kitten or has no particular hatred of carriers and you simply want to be able to call him in quickly on command, then you are best off using an operant conditioning approach to train him to enter the crate for a reward. You can also progress to this stage with a formerly fearful feline after you finish your initial counterconditioning.

If you have a big training task, break it down into smaller pieces and work on those individually before combining them for your final product. The crate training process is broken down into entering the crate, entering the crate on cue when the door is opened, having the door closed behind him, and being locked in the crate for extended periods of time.

Dig out your clicker and treats and sit down next to the carrier. Start off by clicking, then tossing a treat into the crate. Do this a few times just to give him the idea. Then simply sit there and wait for the cat to make the next move. Any time he makes a move towards the crate, click and toss a treat into it. As he becomes more inclined to move towards the crate or step inside it, click these new efforts. Soon, he’ll figure out that stepping into the crate is what earns the click and treat. Then, wait for him to walk all the way in before you click.

Once he’ll enter the crate readily, choose a cue such as “Hop in” and begin using it whenever you see him about to enter. The next step is to begin with the crate door closed. Walk up to it, open the door, say “Hop in,” and close the crate door once the cat enters. Click and give a big treat. Repeat the process several times a session.

What I‘ve outlined here are two basic training plans. However, the great thing about being familiar with basic learning principles is being able to use your imagination and knowledge of your individual cats to design your own training program. If your plan effectively creates a positive association with being in the crate and establishes a cue to enter it, you will succeed. There is more than one way to train a cat!

Jessi Clark-White is a dog behaviorist, emergency dispatcher, and exotic cat owner. Past articles in the wild feline training series can be found on her web site, She is currently writing a book on care, training, and the politics of living with servals. Article copyright 2003 by Jessi Clark-White. Ideas for future article topics can be emailed to

Article copyright 2003 by Jessi Clark-White. Please e-mail me if your are interested in obtaining reprint permission.

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Article on Training Exotic Cats: Crate Training. Serval training article.