Q: I'm using clicker training for my 3-year-old rescue kitty. He is a very high-energy cat; he is also smart and responds well to clicker training. The problem is that he is so food-oriented that he anticipates getting a treat—and is now grabbing my hand with his paws when I am putting down his treat and/or when he knows he has been successful completing my request to sit or jump down, etc. Can you give me any hints on how to modify this behavior with the clicker?
A: An excellent question, as many highly food-motivated animals will become grabby with treats. You should start to teach impulse control (much like you would with a dog). Your cat needs to learn that just because something is available doesn't mean that it's in their best interest to be impulsive and get grabby!
- Begin with a closed hand of 5 treats (sitting on ground)
- Place your forearm anchored to your leg so it doesn't move and so your hand is below your cat's chin in height. Your palm should be facing upward with your hand closed.
- At first, your cat will try to get the treats; keep your hand closed. When your cat's nose/paws move away, open your hand.
- When your cat's nose/paws move toward your hand, close your hand. Continue this process until your cat remains focused on the game, but moves away from the available treats.
- Take one treat from your hand and deliver it to your cat an arm's length away.
- Repeat until all treats have been delivered to your cat.
- Keep repeating these stages in subsequent training sessions until your cat no longer tries to go for your hand of treats. Don't do too many repetitions in one sitting, as you can cause frustration.
The other component of this training is to teach your cat to wait for the treat to be delivered instead of coming up to meet your hand as you deliver it.
- Start with a treat in one hand holding it at shoulder level (again probably sitting on the floor).
- Start moving the treat toward your cat slowly. If the cat moves toward the treat, bring your hand back up to shoulder level. If the cat stays grounded as you lower the treat, give the cat the treat.
- See how slowly you can lower the treat and how close you can get to your cat's mouth while your cat controls him/herself. It will take awhile, but eventually you should be able to deliver the treat directly to the cat’s mouth without the cat moving toward your hand.
If your cat is using claws or mouth too roughly during these exercises, wear gloves (like baseball gloves or tight-fitting gardening gloves) to protect your hands until the cat learns impulse control.