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Making Cats Friendly, Clicker Style

Originally published: 03-01-2006

Clicker training, the science-based system of teaching behavior with positive reinforcers and a marker signal, is becoming immensely popular, world-wide, with some dog owners and trainers, while still being rejected by others. It seems so alien, so different from traditional training, that many are very reluctant to try this new system on their already well-trained dogs. Why not leave your dogs out of the picture for the time being, and explore the clicker experience for yourself, with an animal you don't really need or expect reliable performance from: Your cat.

Why train a cat?

Why would you want to train a cat? Everyone knows you can't. 'Training cats' is an oxymoron. 'Herding cats' is a metaphor for trying to do the impossible. Besides, cats don't usually need training; that's one reason we enjoy their company. They come complete with everything they need to know. In fact, your cat probably trains you.

Clicking, however, is not just training, as we usually think of it. It doesn't consist of commanding and obeying. It's more like a communication system that works in both directions. Without human language, you are striking a bargain with the cat. 'If you do something cute, I'll pay you with a click and a treat."

The arbitrary click identifies what you like, during the moment that it's happening, and promises to pay for it with something the cat likes. From your standpoint you may be teaching the cat to come when it's called, or to roll over. From the cat's standpoint, it is training you to click. Cats like that; and the person with the clicker becomes a much more interesting person, to a cat.

And, for today's city cats, often living out their entire lives confined indoors, clicker training can provide valuable mental and physical stimulation; it enriches the cat's life and can help the cat to be healthier, happier, and a more responsive companion.

Let's get going! Your first clicker session

Pick a time when your cat is hungry. If you leave food down all the time, take it away for two hours before your first session. Now prepare 20 or 30 little pea-sized treats of fresh cooked chicken, or cheese, or tuna-something delicious, not dry kibble. And get out your clicker.

I suggest that you begin your new clicker relationship by teaching the cat to touch a target. This is an easy behavior to build, and it has a lot of potential uses. A target can be any stick-like object, such as a pencil, a chopstick, or a wooden. Sit down in a comfortable and familiar place where you and the cat often interact: in the kitchen, at the breakfast table, or on the living room couch. Now, pick up a treat, and simultaneously click and give the cat the treat. You may hand the treat to the cat, drop it on a plate, or just toss it in front of the cat. I like to toss the treat near the cat so the cat has to move to get it, each time. Relax and do nothing while the cat eats the treat. Now take up the target and hold it an inch or two in front of the cat. The cat is highly likely to look at the end of the target stick or even to sniff it. Click as the cat's nose touches the stick. Then put the target out of sight and give a treat. The instant the cat finishes chewing, hold the target stick out again. Wait for a touch. Click and treat.

Why can't you just use your voice, and say "Good kitty," instead of bothering with the clicker? In part, because the clicker is completely different from anything else in the environment. Your voice means many things to the cat, but the click only means "Yes, you got it right! You win!" Secondly, the click is brief and sharp, and provides accurate information about what you are paying for. Like a camera, the click can catch the tail in mid-flick, the paw in mid-air, the cat in mid-jump. The cat KNOWS what it got clicked for, and can easily do it again. Finally, the sharp click sound provides feedback to you, too. We are finding that it's hard to identify one's own timing errors when using a spoken word. If you click too late, however, after the cat bumped the target, say, instead of while the touch was happening, you will recognize that you did so, and be able to click a little faster the next time.

Sooner or later, after one session or five, your cat will be approaching the target with vigor, bumping it, and maybe swatting at it with a paw. See if you can get it to follow a moving target a step or two. Next, take the cat a little further, two or three feet, maybe. Can you lead the cat back and forth? Great! You can use your target stick to get the cat to jump up onto a piece of furniture, or to get it to leap down. You can have the cat jump over your arm just for fun, or from one chair or stool to another You can target the cat into its carrying case and out again. Perhaps sometime you will really need the cat to do something it doesn't want to do-to come out from under the bed on moving day, for example. Even if the cat is far too stressed to care about food, your target may do the trick all by itself.

Sometimes cats catch on to clicker training with mind-boggling speed. One cat owner, in her very first attempt, trained her cat to follow a pencil across the couch, and then to jump through an embroidery hoop. Another beginner reported that in one session she taught the cat to station herself on a little stool in the kitchen; and then to 'sit up' in begging position like a dog. An hour later, her husband was in the kitchen snacking on some cold fried chicken-and lo and behold, the cat was doing her 'sit up' on the stool. In that first session the cat had learned not just a trick but a whole new way to communicate with people, much more specific than mere meowing. Obviously, she wanted some of that chicken, and of course she got her wish.

Catching something cute

Clicker training doesn't always have to be a project. One of the most delightful things to do with the clicker is just to reward your cat for the amusing little things cats do on their own. How do you begin? Keep a clicker handy, and notify the cat when it's doing something cute. Keep a few dry treats in your pocket or in a jar in each room, so you have something with which to pay the cat. If you don't have a clicker handy, use a mouth click; if you don't have a treat, you can go get one afterwards. Marking the action as it happens is the crucial element.

What do you click? Anything. The cat rolls over? Click. The cat pats a ball and sends it rolling? Click. The cat leaps sideways? Click. The cat chases its tail? Click! By and by the cat will begin doing the behavior on purpose, hoping to make you click. "See me? I'm rolling over." "See me? I'm doing my Sit." Good! Click!

About the author
User picture

Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

new cats

I have one 11-year-old cat who has been with me for 11 years and two recently aquired 2-year-old brothers who the 11-year-old considers to be invaders. He growls at their attempts to get him to play with them, then runs off into the closet for the rest of the day when they persist. Sometimes they chase him and bother him in the closet! I think they are making his life miserable. Can I use click training to train them to respond to his growling by leaving him alone? I've already trained them to come to a mat for treats. I whistle (substitue for click) just before I give them the treats.

Boomer the attack cat

About 6 weeks ago we adopted a 1 year old male cat.  We already had a female cat about 5-6 years old.  The new cat bites us to the point we bleed... He will do this when he is sitting on your lap being petted or when you go to pick him up.  He also attacks and bites our female cat.  We are about to take him back because I am at my wits end and do not know what else to do.  Someone told us about clicker training for cats, so I decided to look into it.  I am not sure how it would work to break his bad habit of attacking and biting.   Please help me, so we can keep Boomer.  Thanks 

Laurie Luck's picture

cats and clicker

I think I emailed you directly with the answer, but just in case...I suggest you separate the cats for the time being, until you can contact a veterinary behaviorist in your area. Aggression is a complex matter and working one-on-one with a behaviorist would allow you to receive personalized advice for yoru specific situation. Positive reinforcement training with the clicker might very well be part of the training plan that your behaviorist recommends. 

Thanks,
Laurie
--
Laurie Luck
For Clickertraining.com
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
See my profile and contact information at
http://karenpryoracademy.com/Luck_Laurie

How Do I Correct Bad Litter Box Habits with CT??

I may have clicker trained myself into a corner. (And maybe this isn't possible for someone who is gone 9 hours every day.)

So far I have CT'd Sasha to stand in her litter box (she's crated bec of her bad habit) and have been able to click her 3 times for actually urinating. But now I've reached the limit of my limited understanding of how to do this. She will get in her box, but she doesn't associate doing so with actually using the box instead of other places in the house. (Yes, she's been to the vet and she has a timid, paranoid personality that ended her show-cat career early. She's a Maine Coon, age 14.)

I'm not sure whether using CT will work for this problem or whether I just don't know how to make it work. Can CT be applied to litter box issues? If so, how?

Thanks in advance.

Stephanie W.

looking forward to starting

I ordered my cat training kit yesterday and am looking forward to experiencing this with my seven cats. Two are very timid and I'm most hoping this will draw them out.

Behavior shaping

CT is great for also helping a cat adjust to things that are normally stressful for it.

Per the recommendation of cat behaviorist Mieshells Nagelschneider, http://www.thecatbehaviorclinic.com/ I am using Clicker Training to help my cat become more accustomed to the dogs and surprises etc. My cat has a neurological disorder (not completley diagnosed yet) that causes her to have both behavioral and physical seizures. Stress can trigger the seizures. She was just put on medication last week, but the CT is also helping her to become accustomed to things that used to startle her so she's not as stressed. We have been having wonderful results in getting her to accept the other animals in the house that she used to have a very antagonized relationship with. I'm very new to CT though I've been interested in it for some time but it has helped my cat so much that I think it's a wonderful resource for everyone who wants to improve their relationship with any creature.

dylan the cat

i have just trained my cat to lie down, roll over and then sit up and wave on the command bang using clicker training. it only took two weeks and he got the idea very quickly

clicker training cats

Hello. I am an R.V.T. and am thinking that clicker training may somehow be incorporated into training cats for insulin injections or home fluid therapy. Any comments or has anyone tried this? Could be very interesting indeed!
Tnanks for the brainstorm!
Erin

Accepting medical procedures was clicker training cats

Hi Erin

 

I think that's a brilliant idea.  Ken Ramirez (head of Training for Chicago's Shedd Aquarium) spoke about just this at a recent seminar I attended.  That training animals to accept medical care is possible (and in the case of many wild animals, essential.)

 

The key to making this work is systematic teaching of the behavior.  So, you'd want to accustom the cats to the syringe without a needle many, many times paired with CT.  Make the non-stick instances fun and rewarding; Include many repetitions of the behavior throughout the day.  When the cat is comfortable with all aspects of the procedure, you can then add the actual "stick" into the routine.  In order to keep the animal calm and accepting of the whole thing, you'll want to continue training the procedure with lots of no-"stick" occurances to keep the animal's overall acceptance of the procedure.

Temple Grandin, when she spoke to APDT's Trainer Conference, also noted that an animal's first experience with a new procedure will make a lasting impression.  I would use this insight to mean that if you have already needed to begin treatment (and forced a frightened or unwilling animal) that you will need to create a brand new experience for the cat when you begin CT training to accept medical treatement. Change the location; change the rug underfoot; change the look of the syringe (as much as possible), etc.  to introduce the scenario to the cat as a brand new thing.

JMHO,

 

Amee Abel, CAP1

 

 

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