What is the purpose of a clicker in cat or dog training?

It could be any distinct sound but the originators of clicker training Marian and Keller Breland (in the 1940s) choose a clicker probably for convenience.

Training a cat to come on command with positive reinforcement and clicker
If a person feels they must train their cat it should reward based. Image: Training a cat to come on command with positive reinforcement and clicker.
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The purpose of a clicker in cat or dog clicker training is to create a ‘bridge‘ between the cat’s desired behaviour and the treat that you give him/her as a reward, which trains the cat using ‘operant conditioning’.

Broken down this is how it works:

You teach your cat that the sound of a clicker precedes a reward – a food treat. The cat develops an association between the sound of the clicker and a food treat. The experts call this ‘charging the clicker’. This must mean that the clicker becomes the embodiment of a food treat. They almost become the same thing.

Clicker trained Bengal Cat
Clicker trained Bengal Cat. Photo by Francis Luong.

After you have charged the clicker you add the desired behaviour. The clicker is activated immediately after your cat completes your desired behaviour, followed by the treat. The behaviour can be something that your cat did without encouragement (‘captured’ behaviour) or encouraged/shaped by you.

The sequence is: desired behaviour – click – treat.

The cat’s desired behaviour is reinforced which leads to the cat being trained to do these behaviours. Of course the treat needs to be a food which definitely motivates your cat. It has to be one of those treats which excites your cat.

Jackson Galaxy uses clicker training in an animal shelter to generate some cat Mojo. He says that, “it provides a structured activity for staff and volunteers”. And it helps create a stronger bond between shelter staff and cats which in turn leads to a more adoptable cat.

P.S. A clicker is not obligatory in cat training. It makes the process more effective and probably accelerates training. Training a cat can helpful and should not be scorned. If a cat is trained to perform tricks that’s wrong. But if the training is helpful to the human-animal relationship it is a good thing. For instance getting in and out of a cat carrier.

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