While cats may not be quite as complacent as dogs are, they can certainly be trained for all kinds of fun and practical purposes. All you need is a clicker, some treats, and a healthy dose of patience. But how does clicker training work? Where do you start?
We’ll start off by explaining some of the science behind reward-based training, and we’ll take you through the steps of actually using a clicker to teach your cat all kinds of cool tricks.
How do clickers work?
Animals have a region of the brain that is focussed completely on rewards. Whenever we work for something and get rewarded, our brains release feel-good chemicals, which reinforce that behavior. Reinforcement is a scientific term that means the pathways in the brain become stronger, making it more likely that we will keep on doing that same thing in the future.
Our brains work this way because it ensures our survival; this mechanism is the reason why we go out to get food when we are hungry, and why we look for potential mates to create offspring.
Clicker training hooks into this mechanism by linking the queue (and later a reward) to the desired behavior. In doing so, we can effectively trick the cat into thinking that it’s beneficial to keep doing something. There are three steps to this:
How to train your cat
Step #1: We show our kitty that clicks herald the arrival of a positive reward in the form of a tasty treat or some cuddles
Step #2: Apply positive reinforcement. Now we make a click every time our cat performs a certain action, and then we give them the reward
Step #3: Consistency will reinforce that action further. By repeating the same sequence, eventually, our kitty will perform the desired action immediately upon hearing a click.
Step 1: Laying the foundation (first week)
Before we start behavior training, we have to introduce our furry friend to the clicker and the reward first. This is a vital first step, because it lays the foundation for the actual training later on.
When you show your cat the clicker for the first time, do so in a quiet environment with no distractions. The more relaxed your cat is, the easier it will be to teach them new things! Start by drawing attention, and then make the first clicking noise. Immediately follow up by giving out a reward in the form of a tasty treat and some affectionate petting.
That’s it. Easy, right? Now rinse and repeat. By doing this often throughout the day (and for multiple consecutive days), we’re teaching our pet that the click will always lead to a positive result.
Step 2: Training for behavior (second week)
Now that we have shown our feline friend that clicks will lead to rewards, the next step is to link the clicking noise to the desired behavior. There are a few ways to approach this.
The easiest method is to wait until your cat does something you want (like to sit down or pee in the litter box) and then immediately reinforce that behavior with the click and the reward. It really can be that simple, but the obvious downside to this method is that you could end up having to wait a very long time (or forever!)
- Small steps
A more practical method is to shape the desired behavior by tackling it in small steps. An example: if you want to teach your cat to pee in the litter box, a great first step would be to simply give the click and the reward whenever you catch your cat walking in the general direction of their litter box. You may also try to lure them over with a treat.
The next step would involve getting them to actually go all the way towards the box, and then to enter it. Don’t forget to reward your cat handsomely for every successful step! Once you’ve gotten this far, the final step is of course to reward your cat for successfully peeing in the appropriate place.
To sum things up, the key to successful clicker training is persistence and consistency. Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. The more consistent you are in your approach, the better your results will be. So use the same clicker throughout, and always reward good behavior with one of your cats’ favorite treats. Keep it up, and you will be amazed at the things you can teach your cat with proper training!
Examples of things you can teach your cat
It’s pretty cool how many things you can actually teach your cat with a clicker and a bit of patience! Clicker training can be the basis of many learned behaviors. For instance, you can use clicker training to teach your cat to lie down, to get them to walk into a carrier when visiting the vet. But you can also employ the concept if you want to teach your cat to walk in a harness & leash. There are even people who have managed to learn their cat to give them a high five!
Did you learn your cat any cool tricks? Be sure to let us know in the comment section below!