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The Basics of Clicker Training For Cats

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There is a persistent myth that cats can’t be trained. In reality, training provides physical and mental stimulation and can be used to encourage behaviors and teach your cat fun tricks. So what exactly is clicker training for cats?

Clicker training involves encouraging a specific behavior in your cat and rewarding them with a food treat. When your cat does what you want them to, you “mark” the behavior by pushing the button on a clicker and immediately reward them with a tasty treat. Your cat will associate the clicking sound with something good that they’ve done, which was followed by a reward.

With practice and repetition, the desired behavior will eventually turn into a habit, so the clicker will no longer be necessary.

In this article, we’re going to discuss various methods and benefits of clicker training and offer pro tips on how to do it right.

The history of clicker training for cats

Clicker training is a type of positive reinforcement training method, a term that was introduced by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1940s. According to Skinner, behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated, while the ones that aren’t are likely to weaken and die out.

Positive reinforcement refers to encouraging a particular behavior by rewarding a cat with a food treat. This makes the action desirable and inspires your cat to repeat a behavior to get their treat.

Skinner believed that behavior was caused only by external factors, rather than by thoughts or emotions. The experiments he did to prove this hypothesis were quite quirky!

clicker training for cats piano

He taught his children’s cats how to play the piano, pigeons how to play ping-pong, and he rats to pull levers all by using positive reinforcement. He also showed that cat behavior can be modified by using sounds. Sounds could also create a bridge between the desired behavior and a reward.

Clicker training came back into the spotlight in the 1960s with Karen Pryor, who revolutionized animal training by using clicker training methods with dolphins. She went on to publish several books on clicker training other animals including training cats!

The benefits of clicker training

The great thing about clicker training is that it doesn’t force your cat into doing anything they don’t want to. If your cat chooses to behave in a particular way, and they get rewarded for it, they learn to make a connection between that action and treats. The same holds true for curbing unwanted behavior or bad behavior.

Cats thrive on predictability and routine, so the clicker training method suits them perfectly. Cats almost see it as a partnership. By behaving in a certain way they “train” humans to give them treats!

In addition to improving communication between you and your cat, clicker training also helps your cat become more confident and have more confidence in you, which is especially important for shy cats.

You can also use any kind of cat training to provide enrichment. It can keep your kitties healthy and stress-free. Research has shown that clicker training helps enhance the well-being of shelter cats and makes them more desirable to adopters because of the positive behaviors they display.

Can you train your cat without a clicker?

Although clicker training typically involves actual clickers, they are not necessary. If your cat is sensitive to sound, you can try using a Soft Click clicker. Or wrap one into a cloth or put it in your pocket to muffle the sound.

Another budget-friendly option is to use a ballpoint pen. Or you can simply mark the desirable behavior by saying, “Yes.” This will keep your hands free for treats and toys…, but may require a little practice to be as powerful and consistent as a mechanical clicker.

When should you start clicker training your cat?

You can start clicker training your cat at any age, although it may be easiest to do it while they’re kittens. A good time to start is once a kitten begins eating solid food, so you can give them cat treats. At that age, kibble will likely also be an effective motivator, so you won’t have to worry about running out of treat ideas.

clicker training for cats kitten

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to clicker train adult cats. As long as your cat is motivated by food or toys, you can start to clicker train them anytime.

How to start clicker training your cat?

Clicker training consists of the following steps:

Step 1: Choose the right reward

Choosing the right reward that will motivate your kitty can be tricky. For some cats, kibble will do, but for others, you may need to use something less ordinary.

Since cats respond to smell rather than taste, make sure you choose something with a pleasant aroma. Fishy treats like supplemental pouches or cans of tuna or freeze-dried bits of chicken are great options to get you started.

Whatever you choose, make sure you give your cat only small amounts of food to avoid overfeeding them or causing an upset stomach.

Another thing to bear in mind is that not all cats are food-motivated, especially those that graze on food left out all day. In this case, you can try using toys such as feather wands or catnip mice, which will also stimulate your cat’s sense of smell.

Step 2: Introduce the clicker

The next step is to “charge” the clicker. This means giving the clicker a specific meaning so your cat can make a connection between the clicking sound and the treat.

First, find a quiet place where there aren’t any distractions. Come near your cat and press the clicker once, then immediately give the treat to your cat.

You’ll likely need to click about 10 times before the cat links the click to the treat. Once a cat starts looking for the food or toy after she hears the clicker, a permanent association has been established and the clicker is “charged.”

Step 3: Get the behavior

You can teach your cat a range of behaviors, such as sitting, holding up one paw, turning in a circle, going up and downstairs, doing a trick, or even training your cat to jump through hoops!

There are three methods you can use to get the desired behavior: the capturing method, the shaping method, and the luring method.

The capturing method

Capturing refers to waiting for your cat to behave in a certain way. For example, you wait for a standing cat to relax, then push the button and give your cat a treat as soon as they sit down.

The shaping method

Shaping involves giving rewards for a succession of small behaviors that lead to a bigger one. If you’re teaching your cat the “come” cue, you can click and offer a treat for small movements, such as taking two steps in the right direction. After that, withhold the click until they come a little closer to you. Repeat the exercise until your cat comes all the way to you, then give a reward.

The luring method

Luring involves getting your cat’s attention by holding a treat so that your cat can see it or smell it. As your cat approaches the treat, slowly move it and guide your cat toward the place you want them to go, for example jumping off of the kitchen counter. You can also hold the treat above your cat’s nose to encourage them to sit.

clicker training for cats method

Step 4: Add in the cue

A cue is a verbal signal, such as “sit” or “come.” Once your cat is consistently doing the desired behavior, you can add the cue to the mix.

Your cat associates the click with the reward, not your voice, so the cue will only be helpful when your kitty has perfected the behavior. You want your cat to associate the cue with the completed behavior, not a half step.

When adding in the cue, make sure you stay consistent.

The order goes like this: verbal cue, behavior, click, and reward. Be sure to say the cue right before the desired behavior. If you’re teaching your cat how to sit, say the word “sit” immediately before your cat’s bottom touches the ground.

When it comes to clicker training, every cat is different. Some may need more practice and repetition than others. Remember to avoid pushing, pulling, or forcing your cat into doing something they don’t want to. If they don’t want to do what you asked them to, don’t click and don’t offer a reward.

How often should you clicker train your cat?

It’s best to keep clicker training sessions short to make sure your cat stays focused.

You can start by having one five-minute training lesson per day. After your cat gets the hang of things, you can increase to two or more sessions that last three minutes each.

If you notice that your cat is losing interest or focus, it’s a sign that your cat needs shorter or less frequent sessions, or that you need to include a more motivating reward.

Clicker training multiple cats

Clicker training multiple cats at once is possible. Some professionals believe that cats can tell when the click is meant for them, so there’s no need to separate them from other kitties while training.

According to professional cat trainer Karen Pryor, working with groups of animals can be more effective than one-on-one sessions, as animals learn by observing each other.

clicker training for cats multiple cats

However, if your cats tend to fight for the treats or toys they may need to be trained separately. Separate clicker training sessions can also build their confidence and enthusiasm.

What if my cat is deaf?

You can absolutely clicker train a deaf cat!

If your cat is deaf, you will use the clicker as a visual cue instead of an auditory cue. The same cat training principles and methods will apply to train your cat. You will just be substituting the clicker sound with a visual cue. Training your deaf cat is a great way to keep them stimulated and avoid boredom. For more on deaf cats check out our article on “Adopting a Deaf Cat.”

Clicker training tips from cat trainers

Here are more clicker training tips to keep in mind for successful training sessions:

Don’t hold the clicker too close to your cat’s face

Some cats may find this intimidating. Or they can fixate on the clicker and lose interest in what they’re supposed to do.

Only click once, then follow it with a reward

Limit clicking to one click at a time so your cat learns to respond to the sound promptly or risks losing out on a treat.

Use variety

Gather together a variety of rewards (food and toys) and let your cat choose their favorites. Other types of rewards, such as petting or walks work well at the end of the training sessions.

Don’t repeat the cue

If your cat doesn’t immediately do the desired behavior, don’t repeat the cue. If you repeat the cue, you risk getting your cat to respond after the third or fourth time.

Try every room of your home

Experiment with basic training in every room of your house. There might be a room that’s more conducive to your cat focusing on training. Play around and try out different areas in your house.

Break each behavior down into baby steps

If your cat is struggling to master a particular behavior, you can break it down into smaller steps to make it easier until they get the hang of it.

Key takeaways on clicker training cats

If you’re a cat owner, there are different methods you have at your disposal to get the behavior you want from your pet. Whether you find the most success with capturing, shaping, luring, or some combination of the three you can work together with your kitty to figure out which is best.

Remember to not get frustrated if your cat doesn’t do what you want immediately. Some cats need more practice than others, and you may need to experiment with more techniques, think combining a ballpoint pen clicker with a wand toy if a traditional clicker and freeze-dried chicken treats don’t work.

With some patience and persistence, clicker training is extremely beneficial for your cat’s physical and mental health. It keeps their minds and bodies occupied and is linked to boosting their confidence and improving communication between the two of you. Who could say no to that?

Ana Markovic
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