When you think of clicker training, you probably think of dogs. If you’ve heard of clicker training, chances are you’ve seen it being done in the middle of your local pet product store during puppy training classes. What about the idea of doing clicker training with a cat? You’re probably giggling right this very moment, right? Everyone knows cats can’t be trained. Really? Well, how about the fact that kitty runs right into the kitchen every time she hears you pop open the top of the cat food can? Hmm, in my opinion that indicates that she has learned to associate a particular sound with a desirable reward. That’s pretty much what clicker training involves.
Why Clicker Train?
Clicker training helps your cat feel more in control in her environment. This type of training offers her a choice – and choice is very powerful when it comes to a cat feeling in control versus backed in a corner. When your cat feels more in control in her environment she’ll relax more and be less inclined to exhibit negative behaviors. She’ll also realize that offering desirable behavior gets her a reward but an undesirable behavior offers nothing. Cats are very smart so they quickly figure out that desirable behavior is more beneficial.
Clicker training offers you an effective communication tool to use with your cat. You can click and reward for subtle behaviors that you normally wouldn’t be able to acknowledge.
You’ll need a clicker. This is a small device that makes a cricket-type sound. The reason we use a clicker is that it’s a unique sound in the environment so kitty will know that when she hears it, she has done something desirable. The clicker is used to “mark” the behavior you want from your cat when it’s displayed. The clicker communicates to the cat that a very specific behavior is desirable. Since most cats are very food-motivated you will immediately follow a click with a food reward. The cat learns that the sound of the click means a reward will follow.
Clickers are available at your local pet product store as well as online. For timid cats who might be afraid of the clicker sound you can use the click of a ballpoint pen. Even a tongue click will work.
Why do you need to use a clicker and not just merely toss a treat? Because the clicker is more immediate. You want the cat to know that the behavior she displayed at that very nanosecond was exactly what you wanted. You can click faster than you can toss the treat.
You first have to teach the cat to associate the sound of the clicker with the food reward. This is what gives the clicker its value. Break up pieces of treats or use a supply of dry kibble. Click the clicker and then toss a treat. If you feed your cat wet food you can place a small amount on a chopstick or on a soft baby spoon. Once you’ve clicked and then offered the food, wait for the cat to look at you before repeating the sequence. This helps your cat associate you as the supplier of the reward. Repeat the process about 10 times or however long the cat remains interested and engaged.
The first few sessions shouldn’t be very long. If your cat isn’t interested it might be because she isn’t hungry enough or the food reward choice isn’t motivating enough.
Rewarding Good Behavior
You can start by teaching your cat a behavior such as “sit.” Get on the floor in front of your cat. Hold a treat or a small amount of wet food on a spoon just slightly up and over her head. As she looks at the treat her hind quarters will probably naturally go into a sit. Don’t hold the treat too high or she’ll simply stand on her hind feet to reach up for it. As soon as she sits, click and reward. Repeat this exercise multiple times. Once she has the behavior down you can then put it on cue by saying “sit.” Soon you can phase out the food lure because she’ll know to respond to the verbal cue alone.
Once a behavior is learned and performed consistently you can start to offer intermittent food rewards and won’t have to constantly have a supply of food or treats with you. Always reward good behavior though – whether it’s praise, food or petting.
That’s Just the Beginning
There’s so much you can do with clicker training. You can teach your cat a variety of fun behaviors but you can also use it for behavior modification by rewarding behaviors (however subtle) that you want to see again. For example, when dealing with two cats who are hostile toward each other I will click and reward any positive or non-aggressive display a cat may display such as when one breaks a stare or when one cat enters a room where the other cat is located. Clicker training becomes a great way to change the cat’s mindset from negative to positive.
For more specifics on clicker training and its application in behavior modification, refer to the book Think Like a Cat.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.