Clicker Training Your Cat

By Elisa Black-Taylor

Clicker training your cat is an activity that brings enjoyment to your cat through a reward, plus in a dangerous situation, it may even save your cats life.

Clicker trained Bengal Cat

Clicker trained Bengal Cat. Photo by Francis Luong.

Many of you are likely clicker training your cat and don’t even realize it. While true clicker training involves, well, a clicker, other noise-making items can be used to get the same result. Do any of you have cats who come running from all corners of the house whenever you turn on the electric can opener to open a can of cat food? This is clicker training. Of course it usually backfires whenever you’re opening a can of people food. Every cat in your house is likely either sitting in front of you or using your body as a human ladder. Your cat has learned to associate the noise of the electric can opener with a treat.

Calling “here kitty kitty kitty” is also a form of clicker training. My big loud mouth was routinely heard at 5 p.m. sharp back in the day when I fed the neighborhood strays and ferals. The area cats knew those words meant a treat. In their case, all the food they could hold. If the bowl went empty at this daily feeding time, the cats knew it would be refilled until they were no longer hungry.

Emergency?

Before I continue, I’d like to explain how clicker training can save your cat during an emergency. If you clicker train your cat to enter a cage or cat carrier for a treat, your cat will soon run into wherever you want them to go when they hear the clicking. You can save valuable time should you have to vacate your home for any reason(eg. fire, flood, tornado). Instead of having to search for Fluffy, Fluffy will be in his carrier waiting for his treat. If you always treat your cat for positive behavior, it will become a conditioned response.

Modern click training originated in the mid 1960’s in large marine parks such as Seaworld, where trainers used it to train dolphins and killer whales using positive reinforcement.

Clicker Training Tips

My friend Amy Shojai gave some excellent tips in an article I found online.

  • Use treats with a pungent aroma while training, as cats respond to smell before taste
  • Make the treat something REALLY special(cat trainers for movies use smoked turkey cold cuts the size of the tip of your little finger
  • Some cats prefer play rewards to food rewards, so invest in a few catnip mice or other toys
  • Cats will only want to train about half as long as dogs
  • Reward actions, such as your kitty napping in a particular spot. Your kitty will soon learn to expect a treat when he goes to that spot

In the meantime, you’re becoming a treat dispenser and your cat is in charge of being given the treats. Your cat being in charge is the reason clicker training is so effective. A lot of work has been done using clickers to domesticate feral cats. Simply sit a good distance from where your feral colony eats. Have your smelly treats on hand and click your clicker (if you don’t have a clicker, use your tongue to make a clicking noise). When you see you have the cats attention, throw down one piece of treat. Once kitty eats that treat, click again and throw down another. Chances are on the first few attempts the feral may only take the first or second treat, look at you, and run off. This is normal, as it takes time for a feral to learn to trust. The important point here is the cat is in charge with if and when they get the treat.

Cat expert Karen Pryor did a paper on “The Neurophysiology of Click Training,” where she explains how German scientist and veterinary neurophysiologist Barbara Schoening and herself were working on a hypothesis paper where they research stimuli and the limbic system. This paper has never actually come about, although both ladies have published individually on the subject and are on the same wave length. To put this into English, it means bright lights and sudden sharp sounds reach the thinking part of the brain first. The hypothesis is the clicker activates a “joy” stimulus. This simply means the cat learns quickly, retains the information longer, and associates the clicking sound with a pleasant emotion. A genuine cat clicker is recommended for training because of the sudden sharp sound it makes. Karen also used clicker training to train marine animals. She later began working with dogs, then moved on to other animals.

Personal Experience

We used a version of clicker training to reform our gray tabby cat Renny the Renegade. He was an extremely feral kitten when we rescued him from the shelter. He’d already escaped at the shelter and bitten a worker. I had to get special permission to pull him since a biting feral kitten isn’t the best candidate for a pet. Renny hid most of the time, only slinking along the walls inside our home to eat or use the litter box.

We began by putting a few raw chicken gizzards on the cat feeding bar after calling “here kitty kitty kitty.” It took about a week for Renny to join the others to eat his treat. Even at this point, if either of us looked him in the eye, he ran and hid. We persisted, offering the treat every couple of days, with calling him being the positive stimulus. The day finally came when Renny sat on the bar without running away and ate his small piece of gizzard. Then he looked up and saw me, only this time he didn’t run. I held out another small piece of chicken and for the first time, Renny came over and accepted it. Good behavior=reward. And Renny was in charge the whole time on whether or not he got the treat.

It took two more months before Renny allowed us to hold him, then at least another two months before he came over and got in a lap to be petted.

Cats like to be in charge. They show us who’s the boss every morning when they do some head pouncing to get us mere humans awake enough to feed them.

Bad To Clicker Train Cats?

There are many cat lovers out there who probably believe it’s bad form to train a cat. Cats aren’t dogs, and therefore can’t or don’t want to be trained. I agree that it’s wrong to exploit a cat and try to teach the cat to do “tricks.” I do believe in clicker training where a cats safety may come into play. It’s important to be able to find your cat should an emergency in the home (or weather) be taking place. Knowing your cat will get into the carrier at a moments notice gives a cat companion peace of mind. Just be careful not to overdo it on the treats, and if possible to substitute food treats with toy treats.

Our cats that are on special diets tend to hang out in their cages and carriers more than the other cats. This is where they get their special food. Sealy goes a little overboard and gets in his cage wanting fed at least a dozen times a day. I’m not sure whether he believes he’ll get a pack of food every time he sits in his feeding cage or that we’ll see him in the cage and automatically bring him a meal. That cat has a bottomless pit. Midnight, our feline distemper survivor, runs to her cat carrier every time she hears the top popped on a can of cat food. To Midnight, the popping of the lid is the cat clicker.

For more on clicker training, there’s plenty of information online. Several books have been written about the subject. Yahoo groups also have quite a few clicker training groups where cat lovers gather to exchange tips. Most larger pet stores, as well as Amazon, sell the cat clickers for as little as $2 for the clicker alone or under $20 for a kit that contains an illustrated book on clicker training.

It’s a great way to spend some quality time with your cat. I’m not sure whether we’re training our cats to come for a treat, or whether our cats are training US to use the clicker so they GET a treat!

Do any of the readers here use an actual clicker and practice the clicker method on your cats? Any advice you can give those just starting out? I’ll probably keep using my mouth to make the noise. I lose things easily and would likely be looking for the clicker at the height of an emergency.

Hmmm….I wonder if it’s possible to train my cats to FIND a clicker if I lose it in my home? Now that trick would deserve a treat!

Elisa

Facebook Discussion

Comments

Clicker Training Your Cat — 7 Comments

  1. Great article with different views. I totally agree that as long as it is not to exploit the cats but is for safety or quality of life reasons then it is acceptable if it is working well. It’s nice to hear from somebody who has not only researched it and knows about it but also knows it from personal experience. You can’t get better information than that! Thanks Elisa 🙂

      • I agree. The clicker is simply a sound that is sharp and which can be delivered precisely so that the reward is delivered accurately. As the experts say it helps to connect action with reward. But saying “come” and giving a treat for it is the same thing. Just a little less accurate.

  2. I believe that clicker training, or just plain training, to a modest or low level is a form of communication with our cat. It adds to the vocabulary and to the interactions between cat and human.

    For that reason alone I think some sort of training is useful. I think it can help to form a closer bond between cat and person as well.

  3. Hi Elise,

    I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a clicker for a few cat communication and protection tasks.

    Positive reinforcement with food and praise combined with the clicker is supposed to work real well.

    The cat into a cage bit you mentioned in case of fire (or even to bring them to the vet) would be a justifiable and very practical clicker task. It would be worth getting a clicker just for that one task alone.

    As I mentioned in a previous post, another good clicker use would be if your cat got lost outside. You could use it to bring the cat out of hiding once you got within earshot and without scaring him off.

    You said, “…bright lights and sudden sharp sounds reach the thinking part of the brain first. The hypothesis is the clicker activates a “joy” stimulus.” Super interesting. I knew it was effective because the clicker puts out a sudden, sharp staccato sound but I didn’t know about the brain chemistry. Cool trivia.

    “Sealy goes a little overboard and gets in his cage wanting fed at least a dozen times a day.” 😀 I wondered if something like that might happen. It makes perfect logical sense to reason that way.

    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please only upload photos that are small in size of max 500px width and 50 KB size. Large images typical of most default settings on digital cameras may fail to upload. Thanks.