Say what? Train a cat? You must be joking, you’re thinking. We all know that cats have a mind of their own, and that they are not trainable.
But they are. A well established training method called Clicker Training has made it’s mark (no pun intended) with cats. It’s not voodoo – it’s based upon the principles of operant conditioning, and it really does work.
So just how do you go about doing it, and what’s it really all about? What if you don’t want your cat to learn tricks? Well, Clicker Training isn’t about teaching circus acts. It’s about reinforcing some basic good behavior, and teaching behavior that may save your cat’s life – like teaching it to get into a carrier in a fire.
Here’s how to begin.
You will need four things to start the clicker training:
1) A clicker
2) A good clicker training guide
3) Some really good cat treats – freeze-dried work well
The last one is important. Cats are smart and learn quickly, but they will not tolerate being punished or reprimanded while training. Positive reinforcement is what clicker training is all about.
You will start by teaching your cat about click and treat. Sitting with your cat on the floor, give your cat a treat. When your cat looks up, click, and then reward with a treat. The association of good things with the clicker sound is being born. Always, always treat after the click. The clicker is unique in that the sound is always the same, unlike the human voice, which is part of why it works.
From here you will move on to teaching your cat to follow the “target”, repeating the clicking and rewarding system that you developed earlier. Place the target close to your cat. When he/she sniffs the target, click, and reward. Move the target farther away and repeat. Click and reward. A very important part of clicker training is to always click while the positive behavior is happening, and immediately reward with the treat afterward.
You can now move on to voice commands, still using the target. Your cat may get to the point that the target is no longer needed, and instead your cat will follow your voice instruction (with the clicker).
In short order you should be able to teach your cat to refrain from some undesirable behaviors – running out the door, scratching, jumping on the table during dinner – with positive reinforcement rather than scolding. Down the road, you should also be able to deal with more complex behaviors like bad bathroom habits.
In essence what you are doing is associating positive behaviors (which you want to reinforce) with the sound of the clicker and a reward. Each component is important. Just using treats will not work.
Karem Pryor is a behavioral biologist who founded Hawaii’s Sea Life Park. She developed and used clicker training as part of her work with dolphin training.
She has written a great guide geared just to cats that can get you started. It comes with a small clicker and some tuna flakes.
Most of all, have fun. Your cat will develop new skills, and you both will strengthen that magical bond between human and cat. And check out our selection of other Behavior and Training Aids for Cats.