Clicker training your cat
Cats are well known for doing things on their own terms, but you might be surprised at how well yours will respond to simple clicker training. Our expert talks you through what it entails, and the steps you should follow.
What is clicker training?
Clicker training works by making a distinct sound – using a small plastic clicker device – that cats can clearly hear. Clickers are available at most pet stores, and cost upwards of a few pounds to purchase. As with any animal training, clicker training uses 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.
What are the benefits?
Your cat’s predatory instincts mean that she’s hardwired to find ‘earning’ her food enjoyable – after all, she continues to hunt creatures in your garden regardless of her full food bowl. And clicker training for 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.’
From this perspective, it’s clear that clicker training can even help to improve your bond with your cat. The stimulating activity will interest your moggie’s mind; acting as an enrichment activity you can both engage in. Plus, you can put the 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 into the travel basket,’ explains Kim.
Clicker training in two steps
Before you begin, remember that you’ll need patience 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 in a spot that’s easily accessible to your cat. Hold the clicker out of her sight, and keep her treat in your other hand. Call your cat: when she comes to you ‘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, and she’ll 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 to use the clicker to call her in from the garden. Start with shorter distances initially, and work up to when she is exploring further afield. You can also introduce a few different training exercises, such as ‘sit’ or ‘give me your paw’. For example: call her to you, holding a treat above her head so she naturally falls back into a sitting position. As soon as she does this, ‘click’ then treat. Again, repeat the exercise several times a day for a few weeks to ensure she masters it.
Keep training sessions short and enjoyable, and make sure to stop before your cat loses interest (for example, when she walks away or is easily distracted). Ideally, try to stop when things are going well, so your cat only has good associations with the clicker.
Clicker training worked well for cat 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 has a similar fear of her travel basket that you’d like to help her overcome, 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, and 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.’