Train a cat?
You can't be serious!
The idea of training cats is often met with a reaction of disbelief. Cats are prized for their independence and for their determination to do exactly as they please when they please. Surely cats do not want to be trained—and, if they did, they would insist on setting their own agenda. (They do, of course.)
photo by Joan Orr
Clicker training is perfect for cats, because the training agenda is in large part set by the animal being trained. Clicker training requires that the animal be a willing and equal partner in the training process—and cats wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, with clicker training the cat has the upper hand, since the cat must try to get the trainer to click.
Training a cat is a humbling experience for a dog trainer. The training principles are identical for dogs and cats, but cats are much less tolerant of training mistakes and will not put up with anything that hints at correction, or even the mildest rebuke. But, if you can accept a secondary role, clicker training a cat is possible, and can be tremendous fun. It is even possible to clicker train a cat to perform enjoyable and entertaining tricks.
Start with treats
For clicker training to work, you need to offer the cat something it is willing to work for. Some cats may work for dry kibble, while others may be horrified at the thought! Try offering your cat several tempting morsels on a plate and see which one it prefers. Offer various combinations of treats to discover which ones are the three or four favorites.
The best treats for clicker training are those that can be broken into small pieces, can be eaten quickly, and can be tossed for the cat to chase. If your cat insists on only the moistest canned cat food, put some in a large-caliber syringe (without the needle) and allow the cat small tastes by depressing the plunger.
Cats love to play and pounce and will often work for the chance to play with a favorite toy. Use the toys your cat likes the best for training. During a training session, be sure to have two toys to play with so that you can entice the cat away from the first toy with the second if the cat does not want to give up the first.
Don't be disappointed if the cat turns its back and leaves, or engages in a marathon groom-fest when the training seems to be going well. Even with the tastiest treats or the most engaging toys, clicker training is very tiring, and the cat may need to rest its brain after only a few clicks. Early training sessions may last for only four or five clicks. If the cat ends a session after four clicks, then be sure to end the next session after three clicks. This schedule will prevent the cat from becoming over-taxed and will leave it wanting more—and eager to play the game the next time you offer.
Target training lays the groundwork
The best way to begin clicker training a cat is to teach it to touch a target with its nose. This task is easy for the cat and will earn the cat many clicks and treats in a short time period. A plastic golf ball or a ping-pong ball on the end of a chopstick, pen, or wooden dowel makes a good target. Hold the target where the cat can see it and click/treat when the cat looks at the target. Click/treat any movement toward the target, and then click for actually touching the target. Work in short sessions at first. Take a break after four or five clicks even if the cat seems keen to continue. Pet or play with the cat, so that the cat does not feel punished when the session ends. After a few minutes, produce the target again and click/treat the cat for approaching, and eventually for touching, the target. Once the cat is interested in the target, start to move the target as the cat approaches, so that the cat has to take one step, then two, and then more in order to touch the target.
Introduce the verbal cue "touch" once you are sure that the cat is deliberately touching the target and seems to be enjoying the game. Give the cue just as the cat's nose comes in contact with the target. Do this ten times.
Try giving the cue "touch" before the cat starts to approach the target to see if it understands the verbal cue. The sight of the target is also a cue to touch it, so it is a bit difficult at first to know if the cat understands the word. Try giving the "touch" cue when the cat is looking the other way. If the cat doesn't come to touch the target, then spend some more time giving the verbal cue at the same time as you present the target. Soon the cat will understand the word "touch" and will come running whenever it hears the cue.
Be sure to click/treat every time the cat touches the target in order to keep this behavior strong. Target training is a great way to teach a cat to come when you call; you'll appreciate the prompt response each day.
Have a seat
Teach your cat to sit, another useful skill, by moving the target back toward the cat's tail so that the cat's head must come up slightly to touch the target. Click and treat any movement of the cat's rear end toward the ground. Eventually the cat will sit; click and treat when its rear end touches the ground. Add the verbal cue "sit" when the cat gets the idea.
You can also hold a treat over the cat's nose and move the treat back slightly to lure the cat into a sitting position. Of course, you can just wait until the cat sits on its own (which it will do at some point during the day) and click/treat when you see the cat going into the sitting position naturally.
However you teach it, the cat will eventually get the idea of sitting (or touching a target) and will offer the behavior, hoping to get you to click. When this happens, you will know that you have a clicker trained cat, and lessons will go quickly from this point on.
photo by Samantha Martin
Sleight of hand
High five and wave are easy tricks to teach a cat that has learned the basics of target training. Hold the target a few inches above the cat's head, too high for it to touch with its nose. The cat will almost certainly extend a paw to try to bring the target to its nose. Click/treat just as the paw makes contact with the target. Move your hand down the shaft of the target, so that on each subsequent trial your hand is closer to the ball end of the target. When your hand is nearly on top of the ball, remove the target and just use your hand as the target. The cat will put its paw up to your hand where the target used to be. Click/treat every attempt the cat makes to put its paw on or near your hand. Add the verbal cue "high five" when the cat is putting its paw up to touch your hand reliably.
Turn a high five into a wave by offering your hand for the cat to touch, and clicking/treating just before the cat actually touches the hand. Raise your hand higher and higher so that the cat cannot touch it, but will still try. Click/treat every attempt at first, and then click/treat only the highest waves. Add the verbal cue "wave" when the cat offers a good wave every time.
Another way to teach a cat to wave is to dangle an interesting toy just out of reach, and click/treat when the cat tries to bat at the toy. This method may take longer if you have a cat that is more interested in playing with the toy than in winning a click/treat. If you have a cat that likes to play more than it likes a food treat, try using the toy as the reward, allowing the cat to play after you click.
Help around the house
Impress your friends by teaching your cat to close a drawer or cupboard. Build on your cat's previous experience with the high five to master this trick.
The best way to increase the difficulty of one trick in order to master another is to make small changes. In this case, move incrementally toward the goal of the cat using its paws to close an open drawer. If at any time during the training your cat becomes confused or does not respond, try to think of a way to make the current step easier. Often making a smaller change from the previous successful condition works. Remember to work in short sessions of five to ten clicks per session; it will take several sessions to teach the entire trick.
A sticky note is a good choice as a target for the cat's paw in training the drawer closing trick. Place the sticky note on your palm and give the cat the "high five" cue. Click and treat when the cat touches the sticky note with its paw. Raise your hand so that the cat must stand to reach it, and raises both paws. After a few successes, place the sticky note between your thumb and forefinger and hold it out for the cat to touch with both paws; click and treat every touch.
Next choose a drawer that the cat can reach easily from a standing position. With the drawer closed, hold the sticky note against the drawer, between your thumb and forefinger as before. Click and treat every time the cat touches the sticky note with its paws. Attach the sticky note to the drawer and begin to move your hand away, until the cat will touch the sticky note with both paws while it is attached to the drawer. Click and treat each time the cat touches with both paws.
Open the drawer slightly and, when the cat puts its paws on the drawer, push the drawer closed. Click and treat while the drawer is moving. If the cat uses enough pressure to close the drawer on its own, you will not need to help. Gradually open the drawer more and more until the cat is closing the drawer when it is open six inches or more. If the cat does not use enough pressure to close the drawer, hold back on the click until it pushes harder.
Cut the sticky note in half and repeat the process. The steps should go more quickly this time. Reduce the size of the sticky note again and repeat the training steps. Continue in this manner until the sticky note is so small that the cat cannot touch it with both paws, and, instead, is putting its paws on the drawer itself.
Remove the sticky note altogether. Continue to click and treat every time the cat puts its paws on the drawer with enough pressure to move the drawer. Once the cat is offering to close the drawer every time you open it, you can add the verbal cue "close the drawer" as the cat offers the behavior. Repeat ten times and then try giving the cue before the cat offers the behavior on its own.
If the cat seems to have trouble, immediately move back to an easier step and progress from there. Start each new session at a point where the cat was successful in a previous session. Watch for signs of frustration (yawning, tongue flicks, grooming) and make things easier for the cat before it decides to leave the training session. Stop your sessions at a point of success, and avoid the temptation to push too far in any one session.
For this trick you will need a child's toy piano or a real piano/keyboard. Once again the key will be to capitalize on a paw targeting behavior to learn a new behavior.
Cut a piece of sticky note that is small enough to fit on one of the piano keys. Engineer a way for the cat to touch it with one paw. Use the same general approach described above to transfer the high five behavior to a paw touch on the sticky note.
Or, place the sticky note on the piano bench and click/treat any approach to the bench, and then any paw touch. Most cats will put a paw on a piece of paper placed in front of them, so this is a good place to start. Once the cat will touch the sticky note with a paw, gradually move the note to different locations on the piano bench (or the surface where the piano sits), and then to an actual piano key. Click/treat for every touch.
Cut the sticky note smaller until it is just a dot. Click and treat every touch at first, and then raise your criteria so that the click/treat comes only if the cat uses enough pressure to depress the key. The cat will learn quickly that the sound from the piano precedes a click/treat. When the cat is producing a sound reliably, remove the sticky note altogether and click/treat for key pressing. Add the verbal cue "play the piano."
Once the trick is well-established, hold off on the click. It's likely the cat will play the note again, or it may try a different note. Click and treat after any combination of key pressing that you like.
An alternative way to teach a cat to press a piano key or a sequence of keys is to use a laser pointer as a target rather than a sticky note. Keep in mind that some cats can become so fascinated with the laser pointer light that they cannot focus on the lesson or trick. If the cat is not interested in the click/treat because it is too interested in the laser pointer, it won't learn the trick. Try a method other than the laser pointer instead.
A target stick is another way to help guide a cat to play certain notes. After teaching general note-pressing using the sticky note method, introduce a target stick in addition to the sticky note. The target stick can be a chopstick or something similar with a thin end. Teach the cat that pressing the key indicated by both the sticky note and the target stick will win a click and treat. Remove the sticky note and try indicating the note with the target stick only. Go back to both sticky note and target stick if the cat becomes confused. With patience, the cat will learn that the target stick indicates a particular note, and you will be able to induce the cat to play two or more notes in succession. (Hint: The black keys are easier for a cat to push with accuracy, since they stick up from the other keys.)
photo by Samantha Martin
Triumph over obstacles
All cats love to run and jump, and house cats will benefit from the exercise involved in running an obstacle course. Use the target to teach your cat to go over and under obstacles. Obstacles can be as simple as the kitchen chairs or other furniture, or as elaborate as you care to make them. Cats can use agility equipment made for small dogs, or, again, you can make your own. The cat will happily follow the target over and under obstacles. Be sure to click and treat at each obstacle at first, and then click/treat more randomly once the cat has the idea.
Cats can learn the names of individual obstacles if you take the time to teach them. Let's say you want the cat to jump onto a chair. Use the target to lead the cat onto the chair. Click/treat when the cat jumps to the chair. After several successful jumps to the chair, give the cue "chair" as the cat begins the jump. Try giving the cue without the target as a prompt. If the cat jumps to the chair, then you have taught it the name of one obstacle. If not, go back to practicing with the target while giving the cue "chair." Once the cat has learned the name of one obstacle, move on to others. Each obstacle name will be easier to teach than the one before, as the cat begins to grasp 1) the concept of responding to cues, and 2) that each cue has a distinct meaning.
Performance or practicality
There is an endless list of tricks that you can teach a cat with clicker training, and many can be taught for pure pleasure (the cat's and yours).
For entertainment, try using the target to teach the cat to spin in a circle, stand on its hind legs, jump through a hoop, push a toy cart—or anything else you can think of. Try giving the cat a large ball or other novel prop. Click and treat any interest in or interaction with the prop. Click anything the cat does with the prop that you like and see where it leads!
Visit www.circuscats.com to see videos and photos of performing cats trained by clicker trainer Samantha Martin, and for more ideas of what your cat can learn.
Clicker training is not just for tricks, though. You can also encourage truly useful behaviors. If you work in a shelter, teach the cats to come to the front of their cages and give a high five or wave to visitors. This simple behavior makes the cats instantly more adoptable. If shelter volunteers and staff learn to clicker train, it improves the quality of life for the cats in the shelter and makes the job more fun for the humans.
For purely practical purposes, cats can be trained to ring a bell to ask to go out, to sit on a chair or cat perch rather than on the kitchen counter, to pull claws on the scratching post rather than on the furniture, and to go into a carrier on cue. Any behavior that wins a click/treat will be repeated.
Encourage the behavior that you like, ignore the behavior that you don't like, click patiently—and even the most strong-minded cat can be trained in pleasurable and helpful ways.
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