How to Train a Cat: Clicker TrainingSeptember 14, 2020
Don’t adjust your screen, you read that right.
With people tending to spend more time at home these days, it’s the perfect time to see what your cats are capable of. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for a unique bonding experience.
I am a certified dog trainer. My preference for working with client’s dogs, as well as my own dog, is using a positive reinforcement method called clicker training. Recently, I was teaching our family dog a new trick. Our cat, Steve, was sitting off to the side watching intently. Knowing that Steve is VERY motivated by food, and knowing how quickly cats can learn, I decided to teach Steve a new trick too. We started with high five. He learned it and was offering it consistently within 10 minutes and he now has over 6 tricks in his repertoire.
While this article specifically focuses on cats, this can all be applied to dogs as well. I’ve even been known to train a chicken or two.
So, what is clicker training?
A clicker is a small, mechanical box that makes a “click” sound. When an animal offers a desirable behavior, you make the sound to mark that behavior and a reward immediately follows. This is a consistent way to communicate clearly to the animal; a common language between the two of you. There are no tones or sounds that can be misinterpreted.
There is an interesting science behind clicker training and why it’s effective, but when working with clients I like to keep things concise since we have limited time in a session.
I tell my clients to think of the clicker like a camera.
Press the button only at the exact moment you want to capture. For example, if you’re teaching sit don’t click as they are lowering. Wait until their behind has actually touched the floor for a count of two full seconds.
The biggest benefit to clicker training is that your cat (or dog, chicken, horse, pig, etc.) will learn to associate the good behavior with the ‘click’ and the forthcoming treat and will learn to repeat the behavior.
Things to be mindful of when clicker training
Without hearing that click during an action, a pet may not connect the reward with that particular action. Or he/she might associate the reward with another unwanted action in the sequence.
Example 1: counter surfing=treat!
A common example of this is trying to teach a pet to stop jumping on counters. A cat or dog may jump up, and then immediately jump down. If you click or say “good boy/girl” for getting down, you have now rewarded them for the FULL sequence — first they jump up, then they jump down, THEN they get rewarded.
The goal should be to reward them for actively making the choice to not jump up in the first place.
Example 2: sit, sit, sit!
Another example is asking a pet to sit multiple times (because if they did not do it the first time, they clearly must not have heard us, right?)
If you reward your pet after you’ve asked six times, they have now learned they have to hear their name three times, hear the word “sit” six times, and then they get rewarded. It is much better to say it once firmly to get their attention, and then give them a moment and let them offer the behavior. If they don’t, simply walk away. They will quickly learn to offer what you are looking for.
We could always be positive simply by saying “good boy/girl”, however, there are some possible issues with this. We use different tones, depending on what mood we are in, so it we are somewhat inconsistent; pets are very sensitive to body language and tone so he/she may get mixed signals depending on your mood.
Additionally, by the time you have said “good boy/girl”, the positive behavior may have already stopped and he/she may have started doing something else. Animals do not have the capability to determine which one of the behaviors is the good one, so they receive another mixed signal.
How do you get started with Clicker Training?
Step 1: Get a clicker
The most important thing you need is your clicker! (Well…and a willing participant!) There are several different kinds of clickers. Some are metal and make a louder sound, some make a quieter “click” for those pets that may be a little sensitive to sounds.
Step 2: Get the reward
The next thing you’ll need are a handful of treats. You will need small, easy to swallow, really delicious treats – something they will find really desirable. They should be quick to eat because this is a fast way to train. You don’t want your pet spending a lot of time crunching through large or chewy treats! Small pieces of cooked chicken, soft treats, or tuna all work well.
It doesn’t have to be food! If your cat is play motivated, a tossed ball or a quick string play session can be just as rewarding.
The reward needs to be easily accessible – either in a loose pocket or a bag carried around your waist. Tool aprons from big box stores work well.
Step 3: Click & treat
Now, start somewhere with as few distractions as possible. Our first goal is showing the cat the meaning of the clicker. Stand in front of him/her, click one time, and immediately give a treat. At this point, the cat doesn’t have to do anything for their treat. He/she just needs to learn the association of the ‘click’ with the treat.
Spend a few times doing a ‘click’, then treat. Generally, give one treat but very occasionally, ‘jackpot’ with a few. Being unpredictable is a way to keep things interesting and he/she will eventually work harder because although they know a treat is coming. It’ll be in the back of his/her mind that they might just get five treats if they make something extra special happen.
It will not take long for your cat to learn that a ‘click’ means that a treat will follow. Their ears will become alert at the ‘click’ sound, and he/she may get excited. They will anticipate the treat after they start to recognize the sounds.
Rules to keep in mind:
- ALWAYS treat after a click – even if you’ve accidentally clicked. Your cat must have complete trust in the ‘click means treat.’
- Do not let small children have the clicker to play with as a toy. Even if they’re in a different room, your pet will hear it and be confused and unhappy if treats don’t follow.
- Only click ONE time. Don’t get excited when he/she does wonderful things and click several times. This takes the consistency out of the ‘click’ and treat routine and can cause confusion and frustration.
- Training sessions should be kept short. 5-10 minutes is perfect. They should be fun for both of you; fun for your cat because he/she is getting treats and is using their brain, and fun for you because watching them learn is rewarding. Any more time than that and they can become distracted and bored.
When your cat is responding to the ‘click’ and visibly waiting for his treat, you are ready to start targeting.
Step 4: Targeting
Present your hand approximately six inches away from your pet at his or her face level, holding a treat against your palm. If your pet moves toward your palm, click and release treat.
As you do this a few times, have the expectation that your pet will move closer and closer. Don’t release the treat until they do. It won’t be long before they are brushing their nose against your hand.
You can also use a stick, spatula, etc. as a targeting tool. Your hand or targeting item can then be used to guide the cat to jump through or over things, hop up on tall items or move in specific directions.
The most important thing about clicker training is to HAVE FUN!
I really love the book Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor. Karen is the pioneer of clicker training. She started her career training dolphins! I was fortunate to meet her and learn her technique years ago when I developed a feline enrichment program for shelter cats. I was amazed at how magical the clicker seemed to be! Many shy cats settled in better, had an easier time trusting, and became more social and engaging with staff, volunteers, and most importantly, visitors. Subsequently, they found their forever homes more quickly.
Her book clicker training in far more detail, talks a great deal about cat behavior, and has some really fun exercises.
Have fun, keep practicing, and I hope you and your fur babies enjoy it as much as I have!
Written by: Yvonne Driscoll, Specialty Department Concierge at Port City Veterinary Referral Hospital