What Is Positive Reinforcement In Cat Training? [Examples & Getting Started]

Definition and Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Communicating with one’s cat can be frustrating, seeing as we don’t speak the same language. If training your cat has been difficult, positive reinforcement using clicker-training might work for you.

Clicker training enforces wanted behavior and does not punish unwanted behavior, using the simple and precise language of a click.

In this article, positive reinforcement and the process of clicker training will be explained, as well as common mistakes made by owners.

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border collie dog with head resting on the back of a large brown Maine coon cat

The Types of Reinforcement: Positive vs Negative

To start off, positive reinforcement needs to be defined. In psychology, there are both negative and positive reinforcements. Both methods of training result in increased behavior.

What is negative reinforcement?

An example of negative reinforcement would be to press on your cat’s behind until they sit, and once they sit the pressure of your hand is removed. This shows the cat that when they sit, they will be rewarded by the removal of your hand’s pressure.

Another example is shock collars: they provide an unpleasant sensation until the pet does what is wanted, i.e. stop barking. The taking away of the unpleasant shock reinforces what is wanted. (Please note: I’m not recommending shock collars and never will since they are abusive.)

But studies have shown that negative reinforcement is not as effective as positive.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement would be giving your cat a treat when they sit, showing them what is wanted. In this way, positive reinforcement training is better for the human-feline relationship as well as overall efficiency in training.

Positive reinforcement is a part of operant conditioning. This might sound scary and technical but is quite simple: Positive reinforcement is the reinforcement of behavior typically through words of praise or food or physical affection.

This reinforcement demonstrates to your cat that this behavior is good and should be repeated.

Because of this, inconsistent patterns of reward can lead to confusion about what is being asked of your cat. A clear and consistent method of reinforcement is necessary for happy and effective training.

Using Positive Reinforcement To Improve Behavior

Positive reinforcement can be used to improve your cat’s behavior. The simplest way is through a method called clicker training.

With positive reinforcement, you’re clicking and rewarding your cat when they do a desired behavior. If they do something you don’t want, you ignore it and ask for something you do want.

Your cat isn’t punished for doing the wrong thing which makes them want to keep participating in this training game. Over time, your cat will do more of what you want them to do and less of what you don’t want them to do, thus improving behavior.

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How To Get Started Clicker Training

To begin clicker training, one must first introduce the clicker. Introducing the clicker involves giving treats at the sound of the click for a few short minutes at a time, with no actual tricks involved on the cat’s part.

This creates an initial positive reinforcement between the noise and the reward. Creating this positive association beforehand will make the use of the clicker much easier. Otherwise, the pet might not understand that the click means they have done well.

From here, the real training begins. The three key steps to positive reinforcement training are:

  1. The wanted behavior exhibited by your cat.
  2. Clicking to “mark” the wanted behavior.
  3. Rewarding the marked wanted behavior positively with affection or a treat.

These three simple steps provide a training base for any kind of behavior the owner wishes to reinforce.

Related: 5 Essential Tools Needed To Train Your Cat

A Real-Life Example: Training Your Cat To Sit

Let’s take training to sit as an example again, and assume your cat is already familiar with the positive sound of the clicker.

The cat might not understand that their owner is attempting to have them sit, but at some point, they will do so by chance or by guess. This is where the owner should click: as soon as the cat has planted it’s behind on the ground.

The cat being trained might not understand what is expected at the beginning of training. Because of this, rewarding the cat at the right time is crucial.

The clicker allows the trainer to pinpoint the desired action, marking the wanted action as it happens. This way, the cat clearly understands what they have done well at the exact moment the action is performed.

The cat will be alerted to the positive sound of the click, and immediately rewarded with a treat. Positive reinforcement is now well underway.

The process is continued until you can start adding in a hand cue immediately before your pet sits.

Common Positive Reinforcement Mistakes

Although clicker training is a great way to implement clear and consistent positive reinforcement, this doesn’t necessarily mean that training will be easy-peasy. Training is a challenge, no matter what method one uses.

1. Getting Your Pet’s Attention

Some of the biggest mistakes are using the clicker to get a pet’s attention. This a huge no-no. It should only be used to positively reinforce an asked-for behavior, otherwise, don’t be surprised if the clicker becomes ineffective due to confusion.

2. Stopping Unwanted Behavior

Similarly, do not use the clicker to stop unwanted behavior. The click should only be associated with what is wanted, not with what is unwanted.

If the click is associated with both wanted and unwanted behavior, the clicker will no longer be effective in reinforcing wanted behavior. It might even lead to reinforcing bad behavior.

What to do when your pet does an unwanted behavior?

Instead of punishing your cat after an unwanted behavior such as jumping onto the kitchen counter, try positively reinforcing good behavior sitting or staying down.

This will mark the good behavior for the cat and let them know what is wanted, not what is unwanted. Your cat will soon adjust their behavior to match what has been marked as good.

The biggest concern in training is that any behavior that is rewarded, whether or not it is the wanted behavior, will increase. The owner must only reward what is wanted. If your cat is rewarded only halfway through the wanted task, this will positively reinforce stopping at that point in the task.

3. Not Starting Due To Not Having A Clicker

Finally, an actual clicker made for pets is not necessary. A retractable pen, a finger snap, or a tongue click work just as well.

Also, if your cat is afraid of the sound of a clicker, use something else or mute the clicker by putting it in your pocket. A scared pet cannot be trained.


Using these tools, a cat owner should be able to positively reinforce any behavior one wishes, from sitting, to meowing, to jumping through hoops.

Of course, it’s important to not abuse the clicker or overwork your cat. Any training takes time and a good attitude.

With clarity, consistency, patience, and trust, this method of positive reinforcement clicker training should work for anyone. If you’d like a step-by-step walkthrough for clicker training, check out my book that covers everything you need to know, even if you’re a complete newbie.

Stephanie Mantilla curiosity trained header logo holding black cat
Stephanie Mantilla

Positive Reinforcement Trainer & Enrichment Specialist

Stephanie has over 12 years of experience training and enriching exotic animals as a Zookeeper. During this time, she received a certificate in Behavioral Husbandry from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and is an expert in animal behavior.
In her free time, she uses positive reinforcement to train her numerous pets at home and is always thinking up creative ways to prevent her pets from getting bored. On Curiosity Trained, Stephanie now helps people make their pets’ lives better by giving them easy to follow tips and science-backed information.

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