Clicker Training Your Cat Positively
Clicker training can teach your cat a myriad of different behaviors. Many people will say cats are untrainable—I dare you to open a bag of food or a can without your cat immediately nosing in to see what you’re doing!
Your cat has become trained to the sound of the food bag or can opening meaning that there’s something in it for them: food (or treats or…) My cat, for example, sticks her nose into grocery bags in case they’re from the pet store and have a toy in them.
Training is all about associations—associations between what they want and what YOU want them to do. Below, I’ll go more in-depth on how to clicker train your cat at home.
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What Is The Point Of Clicker Training?
The point of clicker training is to help owners “capture” a behavior – catching the cat in the act of a behavior that we want them to repeat!
Clickers are most often used for dogs, but believe it or not, clickers work for our furry feline friends as well. Clicker training is a subset of “positive reinforcement training:”
Here’s a simplistic definition of positive reinforcement: adding something positive (the *click* sound and a treat) to reinforce the behavior that we want them to repeat. Since the cat got something they liked, they’re more likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Go here for a more extensive overview of positive reinforcement and the common mistakes.
Is Clicker Training Better?
Clicker training is not necessarily “better” or “worse” than positive reinforcement training without a clicker but is a personal choice to use as a tool for your cat. Often, using a clicker is easiest for beginning trainers so they have the most success.
Clicker training is more successful and easier for a beginning trainer to understand and implement than other forms of training. You want your cat to WANT to train and not be afraid of being punished for doing the wrong behavior.
The field of behavior modification is complex and the last thing you want to do is to try out a punishing training method the “pros” use without fully understanding the potential repercussions.
How Do Pet Clickers Work?
If you’re not sure what a clicker is, it is a small device that simply makes a sound when pressed: click! A clicker is what we use to capture a behavior.
If I am training a cat to sit, I will click the immediate moment that the cat sits down, and follow the click sound with a treat that my cat really loves. And I mean really loves!
The treat has to be of high enough value that my cat will do ANYTHING to get it—meaning they’ll even listen to a human for their treat!
By doing this, we are creating a neurological bond between the sound of a “click” and the feeling that the cat gets when they receive a treat: positive, happy feelings!
Eventually, we won’t have to use the treats at all, and even better, the cat will start offering the behavior spontaneously!
What Age Should You Start Clicker Training?
One question I’m asked frequently is “When should I start clicker training my kitten?”
Clicker training should be started when the cat is fairly young; three months as a general rule, but kitties can learn at any point in time.
It’s easiest to start once your kitten is eating solid foods so they can receive rewards. At such a young age, using their regular kibble or diet is most likely motivating enough and you won’t have to worry about them filling up on treats.
It’s never too late to start a kitty clicker training, as long as they’re still motivated by food or toys.
How Often Should I Clicker Train?
In order to keep training fresh in your cat’s mind, it’s best to train at least once daily for 5 minutes to start out.
Training sessions do not need to be long. In fact, with training, shorter is better. You want your cat to be 100% focused the entire training session.
Think of your cat’s attention span. They likely aren’t going to be able to stay focused for much longer than a 5-minute training session at a time.
After your cat has gotten the hang of training and wants to train more, you can start doing multiple training sessions daily. Two or more quick 3-minute training sessions a day is totally doable!
However many training sessions you decide on, if at any point your cat seems uninterested or isn’t staying focused, this is a good indication that your cat needs shorter sessions, less frequent sessions, or a higher value reward.
How Do I Start Clicker Training?
Clicker training can be started in 3 steps and can be done in short 5-minute bursts throughout the day.
First, you need to get a few tools like a clicker and treats. I go over in-depth the clicker training tools you need here.
When you start training, you’ll need to get the cat to associate the click sound with training, then you work through training a behavior. Lastly, you add in a verbal cue or hand signal to the final behavior.
Step 1: Prime The Clicker
To train with a clicker, you start by “priming” the clicker: click, treat. Click, treat. Click, treat. This sets up the routine for the cat so that they expect something good to happen when the clicker occurs.
You know that your cat has figured out the association when you click the clicker and they excitedly stare at you, awaiting their reward. This sound association training should take less than 5 minutes in total.
Step 2: Start Training The First Behavior
Pick a behavior to work on first. One thing at a time is always a good way to proceed!
Using The Luring Method
The easiest thing to do is to teach your cat to sit. This follows a similar principle to the way we teach dogs to sit: take the treat and put it over the cat’s head, and lure their head up in an arc so that they sit their butt down.
Head goes up, butt goes down! It may take some wiggling of the treat to get them to let go of your hand, if your cat is anything like mine, or to keep them from “dancing,” but if you remember that your cat will go where the treat goes, then you’ll be well on your way to training your cat to sit.
As soon as your cat’s bottom touches the floor in a “sit,” you click. You then have 2-3 seconds after the click to get your cat the treat. The quicker, the better!
Cats may have better memories than dogs, but if you want that association to stick, you need to be pretty quick on the uptake in order to make sure that your cat makes the connection between “I put my butt down!” and “Mom/dad clicked and that means they gave me a treat!”
Step 3: Adding In A Cue
I usually train the motion—the cat sitting—at least five times to make sure that I know my cat is getting the concept first BEFORE I start adding a word into it.
Each cat is different so yours may need more repetition, especially if they’ve never been trained before. You can tell that they understand when they start predicting what you’re going to ask them to do.
Cats don’t speak English, and we shouldn’t expect them to. If we “click” at the wrong moment AND add a word to it, we might inadvertently train our cat that “sit” means “hover with your butt in the air” or “jump up at mom’s hand” or any other numbers of things that they might do ON THEIR WAY to sitting.
We want to make sure that the cat is ACTUALLY sitting before we start to say “sit.”
Tips For Adding In The Cue Word
- Continue to lure the cat with the food into the sit position.
- Immediately before your cat’s bottom touches the ground, say “sit,” then *click* and give a treat as normal.
- Continue to do the above step but make the luring hand signal less and less obvious until you can fade it out completely.
- Alternatively, if your cat has been predictively sitting without needing the lure, add the word “sit” before their bottom touches the ground and click/treat.
- Once your cat is sitting when you say the word “sit,” you’ve effectively transitioned them to the cue.
Even after your cat has learned the behavior, you’re still going to click and reward each time they complete the behavior. This strengthens the bond between you and your cat and your cat will end up trusting you more.
Alternative: Using The Capturing Method
If you wanted to use capturing without luring to get your fuzzy feline to sit, you would simply keep your clicker on you, wait until the cat sits, and click and reward for that behavior.
In order to add in the cue using this method, you’d add the word “sit” right before your cat sat and then click/reward.
This method can be used to capture behaviors that may be more difficult to train other ways, such as “meowing” or rolling around. If you always have a clicker in your pocket and treats nearby, you can be ready to capture behaviors while you’re going about your life at home.
Luring vs Capturing: Which Is Better?
There are benefits to both: luring may get things done quicker, but your cat might get grumpy if they figure out that you’re “making” them do something. Depending on the behavior, it may be more difficult to phase out the lure if you relied on it too long.
Capturing may take longer and require you to keep the clicker and treats on you at all times, but you’re rewarding them for a natural behavior and simply encouraging them to do it more.
Do You Use A Clicker For Bad Behavior?
Lastly, we do not ever punish a cat, especially with a click! Clickers are for positive reinforcement, not punishment.
Cats do not process punishment well. They certainly will not associate you with positive, wonderful things if they come to associate you with punishment.
Cats are often known to simply refuse to come near people that punish them, so it is not a good idea to try and punish your cat.
Overview Of Cat Clicker Training Basics
Cats are a lot more trainable than we imagine—even though, ultimately, it’s our cat that trains us. Every cat owner knows it, but now you, too, can train your cat.
By following these easy positive training steps, you can strengthen your and your cat’s relationship. You may even find that clicker training changes your cat’s behavior for the better!
Many cats end up being more outgoing and confident after they’ve been positively trained. You get to work WITH your cat in order to get desirable behaviors from them.
Let me know in the comments what you’ve trained your cat to do.
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