Contrary to what many people think, clicker training isn’t just for dogs. Read on to learn how you can use this effective training tool with your cat.
Cats are often considered untrainable – but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are cats far more sociable than many people used to think, they can also be easily trained. One popular and effective way to do this is with clicker training.
What is clicker training and why does it work?
Clicker training is a positive reinforcement method based on behavioral psychology. Marking desirable behavior with a sound, usually a click, communicates to the cat that she is doing something you want her to.
In order to begin, you need two things:
- Clicker: a plastic button that makes a clicking sound when pressed.
- Reinforcer (reward): while cats have individual preferences, the most common reinforcer is a food treat. For those that aren’t food-motivated, enjoyable activities such as play with a special toy, or petting in a favorite spot, can be used.
Know that the sound of the clicker will mean nothing to your cat unless it is paired with the reinforcer. After repeatedly and immediately following up the clicker with the reinforcer (be it a treat, toy or pet), the cat will begin to associate the sound with the reward.
To begin training your cat, pick a behavior you’d like her to do. As soon as she does the behavior, click and follow immediately with a food treat or other reward. Start with behaviors cats do naturally, such as sitting or looking at you. Once your cat understands what the clicker means, you can move on to shaping other behaviors (more on these below), or even tricks such as a high five.
Why clicker train cats?
“Cats are highly intelligent creatures that need much more stimulation than people think,” says Samantha Martin, owner of The Amazing Acro-Cats, a troupe of rescue cats who perform tricks. In addition to providing mental stimulation, clicker training can also help solve behavioral problems.
“Clicker training can be used in countless ways for cat training,” says feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC. She uses it for:
- Attention-getting behavior
- Excessive meowing
“The only situation in which I don’t use it is with litter box training, because I don’t want to disturb the cat at that moment.”
“I use clicker training quite frequently with my clients,” adds Dr. Marci L. Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant. “It can be a wonderful form of cognitive enrichment, a tool for behavior modification, and is simply a lot of fun!” Dr. Koski recommends clicker training to encourage cats to:
- Scratch on appropriate surfaces
- Use alternative perches instead of getting up on counter tops and table
- Reduce door-darting behavior
- Reward calm or quiet behavior and help cats cope with stressful situations.
“Clicker training can also help teach your cat to participate in low-stress handling procedures such as nail-trimming and giving medications,” adds Dr. Koski.
Tips for success
- Don’t leave food out for your cat 24/7. Not only is this unhealthy, but a full cat is not going to be interested in working for her food and will be less responsive to clicker training.
- Train your cat before mealtimes. This is especially useful if he isn’t treat-motivated. Clicker training at these times will encourage him to work for his dinner.
- Break training time into short sessions of five to ten minutes each.
- Start with simple behaviors and move gradually to more complex ones. “If your cat becomes frustrated while learning something new, go back to an easier behavior or trick so you end on a positive note,” recommends Samantha
- Tailor your training to your cat’s personality. “If he’s high energy, you may want to teach him long jumps and high jumps,” suggests Samantha. “With less energetic cats, you can work on ‘high five’ and ‘sit pretty’.”
The most important tip of all? Clicker training should be fun for both you and your cat!