Beginning Clicker Training for Cats

The basics of improving your cat's behavior


Can you clicker train a cat? That’s a question often asked by many. A lot of people believe dogs are more trainable than cats. Because of this belief owners abandon cats when they show behavior problems. In fact, abandonment is one of the main reasons cats enter shelters, according to PETA. It is heartbreaking to think that cats get this kind of treatment when in fact they are intelligent creatures. You only need to know how to clicker train a cat.

Why do cats misbehave?

Cats don’t just wake up one morning and decide they want to pounce on other animals or steal your food. Unwanted behaviors in cats often have a physiological basis. Behavior problems occur when their emotional and physical needs are not fully met. In fact, you may have contributed to bad behavior by accidentally encouraging your cat to be dominant or unruly.

Cats misbehaving with toilet paper
Cats (mainly) misbehave with a good reason, not just to mess with you.

How to Clicker Train a Cat and Correct Misbehavior

While there are many known ways to correct misbehavior in pets, clicker training is the best technique for cats. Compared to fear-based techniques, the effects of this reward-based method are more permanent.

Cats are naturally fearful in situations new to them. Clicker training puts this in consideration. It uses encouragement and participation in the exploration of new behaviors rather than punishment for bad ones. It offers alternative activities to change unwelcome behaviors, shifting the focus from the undesirable behavior to a more pleasant one.

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Important Terms for Beginning Clicker Training

Primary Reinforcer

Primary reinforcers are often in the form of food treats. Pets, however, have their individual preferences. One cat may be highly motivated by Roasted Chicken Cat Treats, while another may prefer Seafood Treats. Still others respond more favorably to affectionate touch than edible treats. They are often the ones that are picky with their food. In such cases, playing and petting are the best form of primary reinforcer.

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There are many possible primary reinforcers. It is best to rank them in terms of how much your cat values them so you can pick the one that’s most effective for beginning clicker training.

Secondary Reinforcer

Secondary reinforcers are also called conditioned reinforcers, bridging stimulus or bridge. These are things that your cat will learn to associate with the primary reinforcer.

For instance, if you keep saying “Good dog!” then follow it up with a primary reinforcer such as a treat, your cat will eventually love it. She will do everything to hear those words from you.

Many animal training experts, however, have found that a click is more effective for training than the spoken word. This is because the click from a Pet Training Clicker Set is a sound that your cat doesn’t hear often. It’s a signal for just one thing: you will be rewarded because of your correct behavior before you heard the click.

There are many other devices you can use as a bridge. You only need to make sure you use it exclusively for reinforcing a desirable behavior. That’s why it is best to use something that you don’t normally use around the house.

Target Prop

This can be anything. It can be a chopstick with a ball stuck on the end or a pencil with an eraser on one end. Pencils make a great target prop because the eraser looks like a cat’s nose. You probably already noticed cats greet each other by touching their noses together.

Steps to Beginning Clicker Training

Pairing the Primary Reinforcer to the Clicker

Clicker trainers call this charging the clicker. The purpose of this is for the cat to have a positive feeling about the clicker or secondary reinforcer. To do this, click the device once and then give your cat a treat. Wait for your cat to eat the whole treat and look at you again before clicking. Make sure you have your cat’s full attention before you click again.

Remember that clicker training is supposed to be fun, not a chore. So, if you see your cat distracted, let her go. You can try to do it again when she’s more cooperative. When beginning clicker training, it is best to have multiple short sessions spread throughout the day. Gradually move on to longer sessions when you and your cat have both become better in the clicker language.

Teaching the First Behavior

Hold the target in one hand and the clicker and the treats in the other. Be careful not to hold both the click and the target in the same hand. Lower the target to about half an inch away from your cat’s nose, just enough space for her to need to stretch a little to reach it. The goal here is to make her touch the target with her nose as an automatic response.

The second your cat’s nose touches the target, click the clicker once and give her a treat right away. The effectiveness of clicker training depends a lot on timing. Make sure to click as soon as she touches the target, not a second earlier or later.

The click signals an event telling your cat that the action she did when she heard the click is desirable and will get her a reward. Give her the treat only after the touch and click routine. Because the sound of the clicker has been associated with the treat, the touching action has been reinforced.

Remember to repeat the routine only after she consumes the treat and gives you her full attention. There are times when she won’t touch the target, don’t click and treat when this happens. Simply hide the target out of her sight. This way, she will learn that if she wants a treat, she’ll have to do the activity first.

Another possible thing that could happen is your cat touching the target with other parts of her body like her paw or head. Resist the temptation to click when she does this. She should touch the target only with her nose. It is important that you be consistent in clicker training.

Cat looking up for a treat

Asking for Behaviors with Verbal Cue

When your cat has already mastered the target-touching exercise, you can add a verbal cue. For example, you can say “Touch!” just as you lower the target and follow the same procedure. After a few repetitions, your cat will associate the word to the behavior. Don’t change the word request or it might confuse your cat.

Until your cat learns the behavior he won’t know what you want him to do if you use a verbal cue. He will only know once you have already clicked her numerous times for a behavior.

When she can do the behavior upon hearing the verbal request, you can up the ante by gradually increasing the distance of the target from her nose. She might not do the target-touching behavior at first. She might be tired or bored or you might be asking for too much. Don’t force her to perform the exercise. Try to do it again some other time.

Target training can help you and your cat in a lot of ways. For example, if your cat is too aggressive to be placed in a carrier, you can use this training to get her into and out of her carrier on her own.

How to Clicker Train a Cat: Avoid Punishment

Your cat’s behavior may either be pleasant or unpleasant. Clicker training, however, does not promote punishment as a means of changing your cat’s behavior.

This is because punishment may stop the unpleasant behavior, but it will breed another unpleasant behavior. Punishing has consequences that you can neither predict nor control. Additionally, your cat won’t know why she is being punished because you haven’t identified it with an event.

Clicker trainers have also made stronger bonds and better relationships with their pets when they take the focus away from the negative and focus on the positive instead. Clicker training teaches your cat to behave with intention rather than out of habit. She behaves in a way that gets her a reward rather than to avoid being punished.

Clicker training is designed around the fact that animals will stop doing something that doesn’t bring any good to them. If clicker trainers notice a persistent and unwanted behavior in their cats, they try to understand the reason behind it. For example, your cat might scratch walls when bored. The scratching is, in your cat’s mind, her reward. As a remedy, you need to teach her an alternate and more welcome behavior through clicker training.

Things to Avoid When Clicker Training

1. Using the clicker on activities other than training your cat.

The clicker has only one purpose: to tell your cat exactly what behavior gets her a treat. One of the most common mistakes of cat owners who are just beginning clicker training is using the clicker to catch their pet’s attention. If you click too often or use the clicker for other purposes, you may confuse your cat.

2. Clicking without giving your cat a treat.

There are times when you click on accident so make sure you always have treats on the ready. Once she hears a click and doesn’t get a ward, she might lose interest and disassociate the click with the treat.

3. Combining clicker training with negative actions.

You need to be consistent when beginning clicker training. Your cat needs to associate the click and treat to a positive reinforcement. For instance, if you lower a stick for your cat to touch with her nose and she uses her paw instead, resist the urge to say “No!” or brush her paw away.

Remember that your cat learns from you. This means you have the power to teach and train your cat. They pick up on things even though it’s not your intention. When you attempt to read a newspaper, she will decide to stick her head on top of the paper you are reading. If you fill up her feeding bowl just to get her out of your way, she will learn that sitting on your morning paper will get her food.

This is the principle behind clicker training. Clicker training is an effective way for teaching your cat new behavior. It is based on research in behavioral science. It is more about learning and influencing how your cat learns new behavior and less about teaching her an exercise.

Planning on beginning clicker training? Use the above foundation for improving your cat’s behavior.

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