Cats are well known for doing things on their own terms, so you might be surprised at how well yours will respond to simple clicker training. Our expert talks you through what’s involved, and how to get started.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training works by making a distinct sound – using a small plastic clicker device – which animals like cats can clearly hear. Clickers are available at most pet stores, and shouldn’t cost more than a few pounds to buy – or you could download a clicker app to your phone. As with any animal training, clicker training a cat requires food as an incentive to reinforce and reward the behaviour you want.
‘Your cat learns to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward,’ explains Kim Houston, ABTC-registered clinical animal behaviourist. ‘When she realises that a treat will closely follow the “click”, the behaviour you want is much more likely to be repeated.’ However, it’s vital that the reward is of high value. ‘If the treat is something your cat really enjoys – like a tasty bit of chicken – she’ll be more motivated to work for it,’ Kim says.
The benefits of clicker training cats
Your cat’s predatory instincts mean that she’s hardwired to find ‘earning’ her food enjoyable. After all, she probably continues to stalk creatures in your garden, regardless of her full food bowl. Clicker training cats is fun and stimulating for exactly this reason, says Kim: ‘Your cat would rather use her brain to work for food – it’s something she finds naturally rewarding.’
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why clicker training your cat can help to improve your bond, acting as an enrichment activity you can both engage with. Plus, the mental stimulation will help to keep your moggie's mind active.
You can also put your clicker training to good use. ‘By employing this technique, you can teach your cat to come in from the garden, or even help overcome potentially stressful situations, such as getting her into a travel basket,’ explains Kim.
How to clicker train a cat in two simple steps
Before you begin, remember that you’ll need patience, treats, and a hungry, energetic cat for all sessions. To keep the training fun for your furry friend, make sure it’s never more than five minutes long.
- To start, sit on the floor and hold the clicker out of her sight, keeping a cat treat in your other hand. Call your cat: when she comes to you for the treat, ‘click’ and then reward her immediately. Repeat this step two or three times a day for the next week. Eventually your cat will learn that the clicker sound is an indication that she’s performed the correct behaviour – she’ll now associate it with the reward it brings.
- Once your cat has mastered Step 1, and is reliably coming to you at least nine times out of 10, you can begin using the clicker to call her in from the garden. Start with shorter distances at first, and work up calling her back from further afield. You can also introduce a few different training exercises, such as ‘give me your paw’ or ‘sit’. For the latter, call her to you and hold a treat above her head, so she naturally falls back into a sitting position. As soon as she does this, ‘click’ then treat. Repeat the exercise several times a day for a few weeks, to ensure she masters it.
A top training tip
Keep training sessions short and enjoyable, and stop before your cat loses interest (for example, when she walks away or becomes easily distracted). It’s best to end the session when things are going well, so your cat only has good associations with the clicker.
Real-life clicker success
Cat clicker training worked well for owner Joanna Clarke. ‘My cat, Jess, was terrified of going into his travel basket and would run a mile as soon as he set eyes on it,’ she says. ‘But I used clicker training, and now taking him to the vet or cattery is always calm and stress-free.’
If your cat is also afraid of her travel carrier, Kim offers this clicker-based solution:
‘To begin with, reward all positive steps your cat takes towards the carrier. So, if she approaches it – even at a distance – mark this advance with a click and a treat. When your cat becomes a little more confident and moves closer to the carrier, click then treat – but this time, toss the treat into the bottom of the basket.
‘This stage could take days, perhaps even weeks, in a fearful cat, so be patient and go at your cat’s pace, making sure to never force her into the carrier. Continue rewarding your cat in this manner until she’s confidently entering the basket on her own.
‘When your cat reliably goes in and out of the carrier without displaying any fear or anxiety, you can then close the door for a few seconds along with a click and a treat. Repeat this last stage for at least a week, until your cat shows no signs of distress when in the basket, and seems completely content with the door closed.’
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