What is Clicker Training?
Clicker training is a positive reinforcement based system of training based on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning was pioneered by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1960's. Skinner observed that an animal will tend to repeat an action that has positive consequence and will avoid an action that results in a negative consequence. Using operant conditioning, Skinner trained rats to push a lever that released food pellets. Clicker trained animals aren't simply reacting out of habit, they are actively choosing to repeat a behaviour that brings a pleasant consequence.
Why Clicker Train Your Cat?
At is most basic level clicker training is a fun and effective way to communicate and bond with your cat. Clicker trained cats are more confident and enthusiastic because they have control over the consequences of their actions. Clicker training can provide much needed mental stimulation for indoor cats, and can help prevent problem behaviours.
Why Use A Clicker Rather Than A Word?
The very distinct sound of the clicker is far more powerful than a spoken word because it is a sound not heard in any other circumstances. The click sounds exactly the same each and every time, unlike the human voice which can vary in tone or inflection. Without hearing a click during an action the cat may or may not connect the reward with the action. With the clicker the trainer can precisely 'mark' the behaviour desired so that the cat knows exactly what is was doing at the time of the click. The click means one thing only: a reward is coming because of what you did when you heard the click. It can be produced instantly and at the exact moment the behaviour occurs.
Tips For Clicker Training:
Three Main Steps to Clicker Training:
Step 1 Pair a click with a reward. Don't ask or expect your cat to do anything except associate a click with a treat. Click=treat. Click give treat; click give treat; and so on. You should begin to notice that your cat reacts to hearing the click with anticipatory behaviour-looking for the treat. At this point your cat has learned to associate the sound of the clicker with the reward.
Step 2 Begin to click and treat only when the cat has engaged in the behaviour you want. Keep in mind behaviours often need to be 'shaped' in small stages. For example if you want to train your cat to come to you, you would click and reward him for taking on or two steps in your direction.
Step 3 State a verbal cue that signals a behaviour performed. Such as: come, sit, up, jump, etc. When your cat is doing what you asked click the clicker and offer the treat. Make sure you click and offer the treat precisely when the cat is engaged in the behaviour so that he connects it all together-the click, the treat the behaviour.
Use of a 'Target'
A target is something you use to get your cat's attention. Plastic drinking straws or thin wood dowels work well as targets. Or you could purchase my favourite clicker the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Terry Ryan Click Stik, an all in one clicker and retractable target. First you train your cat to touch the target with his nose or paw-a fairly natural response for a cat. When the cat touches the target you click and reward. Keep repeating this until it becomes a consistent behaviour. Now the target can be used to guide other behaviours like sit, down, come, up or whatever. The target signals where you want the cat to be.
What If My Cat Doesn't Do What I Asked?
If your cat doesn't do what you've asked (such as sit or come) don't click or offer a treat. You can try and help him get the idea by holding the treat above his nose (so get him to sit or stand up) or by walking away and holding the treat in-front of you (to get him to come). If your cat still doesn't respond you can click and reward even if there is small progress in the right direction. Do not push, pull, or try to force him to do the behaviour. The beauty of clicker training its that it doesn't involve touch.
Where Can I Find Out More About Clicker Training?
There are many excellent YouTube videos regarding clicker training cats.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with 30 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.