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Clicker Training Your Cat

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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The new wave of pet animal training focuses on positive or reward-based training only. The idea is to train your cat to perform certain desired behaviors rather than to punish his unwanted behavior. For example, you would not train a cat to stop meowing by punishing the unwanted behavior. Instead you would reward the silence that follows. This strategy involves waiting until the noise has stopped for at least three seconds and then supplying some valued reward (a "primary reinforcer").

Timing of rewards is critical. If a cat stops meowing for 3 seconds and you have to reach into your pocket for a food treat and then walk toward the cat to deliver it, the moment may have passed. Yet it is difficult to have primary rewards (food, water, toys) handy at all times so how can this best be managed?

The answer is using a "secondary reinforcer," like praise or a neutral cue that signals that the primary reinforcer is due. For humans, money is a secondary reinforcer. It has little or no intrinsic value but signals to the recipient that they have performed well and that the real reward (what the money buys) will be forthcoming. In time, money alone reinforces the behavior (work) but it must retain its implied value or its attraction will eventually be lost (as in times of great inflation). In animal training, whistles and clicks have been used as secondary reinforcers, though you can also use your voice.

Clicks made by small plastic clickers are probably the best and most consistent way of marking the successful accomplishment of a behavior. Initially the clicking sound is meaningless, but it doesn't take long for cats to realize that it signals something good (same occurs with the noise made by a can opener!).

At this point the clicker can be used to reward any desired behavior instantly, accurately, and even from a distance. The complete behavior does not have to be performed all at once for a click/reward sequence to be activated. The desired behavior can be "shaped" by rewarding serial, incremental approximations to it.

For example, if you reward a step in the right direction, then two steps, then three, you will eventually have the cat literally where you want him. People can be click and treat trained, so can fish, marine mammals, zoo animals and horses. Engaging in clicker training is fun for the pet owner and the pet. It's constructive, produces rapid results, and the learning is indelible. What's more, click-treat-trained pets are more attuned to their owners, and bonding between a clicker trained pet and his owner is usually enhanced.

Clicker training doesn't mean you have to spend hours each day teaching yourself and your pet what to do – a few minutes a day is all it takes. Treat yourself: Go out and buy a clicker kit and get started.

  • Choose a quiet location where you can be alone and undisturbed with your cat.

  • Have a supply of delicious food treats on hand, say in a bowl, but out of your cat's reach. The treats should be diced up into pea-sized chunks. For cats: cut-up Pounce® cat treats (of a favorite flavor) will often do.

  • Hold the clicker in your hand or have it attached to your belt.

    Step 1. Pair a click with a reward – for nothing at first, to associate a click with a treat. Click-treat; click-treat; and so on. By the end of this stage you should have your cat's undivided attention. Also, you should notice that your cat reacts to hearing the click with some anticipatory behavior (i.e. he has learned to associate the sound with the reward).

    Step 2. Begin to click and treat only when the cat has engaged in some behavior that you want. If the behavior is immediately acceptable as a finished behavior (such as sitting) then that is what is clicked and rewarded. Or, you can click and reward approximations toward a behavior that you are trying to encourage (i.e. shape it). For example, click and reward your cat for taking a pace or two toward you when you are trying to train him to come to you.

    Step 3. Issue a verbal cue that signals a behavior performed subsequently will be rewarded. Behaviors performed spontaneously without a verbal cue are ignored at this stage of the training.

    Note: You can vary the time between the click and treat from immediate to a second or two later. The cat learns that if he performs a behavior you approve of he can make you click ... and that means food. He will try all kinds of ways to make you click when in "clicker mode." All you have to do is decide what you want to reward (and therefore promote) and what you prefer to ignore.

    Specific Exercises

    Sit If your cat does not sit quickly enough for your liking, you can lure him into sitting with a food treat. First, put a food treat in your closed hand and position your hand over his head. As he shows interest in the enclosed treat, gradually move your hand back over his head so that, in the process of following it, he will naturally assume a sitting posture. Then click and reward his success. He doesn't have to perform the greatest sit at first try – just an excuse for a sit will be fine. You can refine the sit later by progressively raising the bar on what will be clicked and rewarded. Remember that the click that signals the successful completion of any phase of the behavior and reward is forthcoming – but not when that true reward will be given.

    Down Similar to training sit but with a different trajectory for the food lure. Show the cat your clenched fist containing the food treat. Slowly lower your fist toward his chest, between his elbows. The cat's head will follow so that he assumes a "hunkered over" posture. Next move your fist (still clenched) slowly away from the cat so that he slides forward... and down.

    Don't worry if it doesn't go fully according to plan at first. Remember to start by rewarding even approximations toward the desired behavior and "shape" the complete behavior in stages.

    Long Sit/Down Once your cat has learned to sit or lie down in order to make you click you can start shaping the behavior toward longer durations of these behaviors. To accomplish this, do not click right away but rather delay the click and reward by a few seconds. The length of delay can be increased, clicking only once to signal the end of the required behavior. The cat will learn that if he sits or lies down for long enough a click and treat will eventually come.

    Fading the Lure Of course, you don't have to keep food in your clenched hand and wave it around forever in order to get your cat to perform. Once a behavior is occurring with the appropriate hand movements simply stop using them and wait for the response to occur without direction of the cat's own volition.

    Come Start by sitting on the floor or crouching down and calling your cat to you. Look enthusiastic and pat or scratch the floor in front of you. "Fluffy, come here, good boy." If Fluffy comes, click – reward and move to another location. Repeat this exercise many times. If you have more than one person you can practice this recall among 2 or 3 people. Each one calls the cat in turn and whenever he responds to the call successfully – click and treat.

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