Cat Training 101

How Does Clicker Training Work?

Contrary to traditional training techniques, clicker training is a type of positive-reinforcement training with lots of science behind it.

The clicker’s practicality is useful due to the fact that animals learn by association. Initially, the noise of a click has no meaning. But when your cat notices that every click they hear comes quickly with a small tasty treat, they begin to focus more on that click, trying again the action that earns them the reward.

clicker training

Food is a ‘primary reinforcer’. Primary meaning living things do not need to learn to like it. Because they need it, their system naturally likes it. And a Reinforcer is any consequence that strengthens the behavior which causes it. For example, by calling your cat’s name, then clicking and rewarding them when they look your way, the treat reinforces them to look at you.

clicker training

By figuring out doing Thing A gets them Desirable Thing B, kitties are likely to keep doing Thing A as long as they keep wanting Thing B. You give your cat a treat for sitting, they’re likely to sit again and again, so long they get a piece of their favorite food for it. 

What Is A Clicker?

A clicker is a small handheld plastic device that produces a “click” noise which represents a “marker word.” In positive-reinforcement training, we reward a cat for certain behaviors that we approve with something they enjoy to motivate them. A “marker word” is the succinct 3 to 4 letter word we repeat to let the cat know of the particular moment they’ve done something we want.

Most trainers use the word “Yes!” or “Good!” as their marker word. So, when they ask a cat to sit, the moment their rear hits the ground, they say one of the words.

This lets us communicate efficiently to our cat exactly what we like in their behavior, and fixes the problem of taking too long to pull out a treat or searching for a toy to reward our cat. By that time, they may have moved on to a totally different behavior (likely an undesirable one) or just forgotten what they did to get the treat in the first place.

In clicker training, the clicker takes the place of our “Yes!”. If we ask our furry friend to “Sit”, the moment their rear hits the ground, we click. The reward follows as soon as we click.

Marker Words vs Clicker Training

Clicking the clicker and saying the marker word works the same way, but there are two big differences between them. These differences help are the reasons clicker training has become a brilliant tool.

Firstly, a clicker makes a unique, distinct sound. We are constantly offering our cats words, and despite the marker word you use, it is possible to be one your feline will hear at times that are not pertaining to their training, for example, when speaking to a family member or a friend.

However, a click is a sound that only results when you are holding a clicker. Chances are, you won’t be having one in your hand unless you are training your cat.

Secondly, the clicker produces a neutral sound. It does not convey emotional tones. It is simply a click. Using a neutral sound can reduce confusion or stress your cat might feel around trying to decipher your mood, thus help them focus better on the training.

Familiarize With A Clicker

For newbies, starting a clicker training can be overwhelming. It’s daunting to imagine using a clicker on top of all the other stuff you need to worry about when training your cat.

In reality, the clicker is fairly simple to use in your training, but practice will help. You may want to put a little effort into perfecting your methods before introducing clicker training to your cat.

How To Practice For Clicker Training

Start by holding the clicker in one palm and press the button with the finger from that hand. Once you’ve got the feel, it’s time to exercise the important part of clicker training, which is timing.

Sit down in front of a movie or TV show, then try clicking every time a particular person appears on screen, or every time a particular word is said. Better if it is in sync with other details that happens randomly but regularly. It makes things easier by deciding in advance what you will be clicking for beforehand.

clicker training

Once you nail this, move on to your cat. Begin by clicking each time your cat looks at you. After that, follow your click with a tasty food reward. If your cat is food motivated, you may use some of their dinner to avoid using too many treats.

The sequence should be as below:

  1. Kitty looks at you (either on their own or because you get their attention)
  2. Click the moment they look
  3. Follow the click with a bite-sized treat within 3 seconds

Repeat this a few times until you’ve mastered the reward delivery. This exercise helps your cat relate the click to something positive, which is the delicious treat.

Capture To Shape Good Behavior With Clicker

In the simplest term, capturing good behavior means implying to your cat naturally that they did something great. For example, if you click and reward your cat when you catch them in the process of lying down on the bed, your kitty is learning that you like it when they lie down on the mattress. The more they hear the click and earn treats for that exact behavior, the more frequently they will do it.

Shaping your cat involves capturing. When you “shape” your cat, you click and reward their small movements that add up to become a subconscious favorable routine. Start by deciding your big-picture goal. For example, getting your cat to lie down on the bed without cueing them to do it.

Once you decide, click and reward your cat for each small move toward the ultimate goal, gradually raising your preference through the process. But when you raise your ideal, do not reward them anymore for the previous ideal. Below is how it can work:

Aim 1: My cat spontaneously glances in the direction of the bed

Aim 2: My cat takes a couple steps toward the bed

Aim 3: My cat sits near the bed

Aim 4: My cat hops onto the bed

Aim 5: My cat sits on the bed

Aim 6: My cat lies on the bed

To Do And Not To Do With A Clicker

You can use the clicker for any training that entails learning by consequence or association. However, do not use a clicker for the types of training that require methods that intimidate or cause pain. Do not use clicker to ‘correct’ a cat. They are useful only for implying desirable behaviors.

Does this mean you can use a clicker to help solve behavioral issues? No. But you may use it to mark and reward your cat when they make any alternative choice that is preferable to the unfavorable behavior.

Tips To Make Clicker Training Successful

  • Get one with a wristband. This keeps it attached to you when you need to use your hand for something else, or in case of accidental dropping.
  • Use a treat pouch to keep your food rewards. A person only has two hands. So, a bag lets you keep the treats close while being hands-free.
  • Avoid pointing the clicker at your cat – Try to keep it by your side or behind your finger inside your palm.
  • Click only once. And When you click you must give them the treat immediately after. 
  • Keep training sessions short. Cats learn better in bursts of 3 to 10 minutes than they do in a tedious 30 to 60 minute session.
  • Be consistent.  As trainer Kathy Sdao said, the more you practice, the stronger your muscles get. So, the more we reinforce a behavior, the more ingrained the behavior gets. But as with any training, the key is consistency. Do a clicker training 3 times a day for 7 days straight for a great result

NOTE

clicker training

The clicker does not cue your cat to do something, so do not use it like a remote control. Remember, it marks the moment your cat has done an action worth rewarding, not the other way around.

Troubleshooting During Clicker Training

If your cat is having trouble with certain behavior, they may not grasp what you want them to do. If, for example, kitty doesn’t understand that lowering your hand to the ground with palm facing down is a request to lay down, that action won’t be successful until you define it more clearly.

Instead of looking for your cat to lay down when you lower your hand, you can try taking a step back by clicking and rewarding each time the cat follows your hand enough to bend closer to the ground. Once they can consistently do that, you can up the level by waiting for your cat to both curve to the ground while stretching out a paw, then click and reward for it. Eventually, our ideal will return to looking for felines to follow our hand into a perfect “Down”.

My Cat Finds Clicking Noise Scary 🙀

If this happens, try covering the clicker with a towel and/or click from behind your back to  muffle the sound. Another way is by purchasing a softer clicker.

My Cat Is Deaf

Worry not! You can implement a visual sign like a hand flash. This is a hasty opening and closing of your hand that you do deliberately to show them you approve what they did. When doing this, ensure that they are able to see your hand movement, and that it is instantly followed by a food reward.  

What If I Accidentally Click The Clicker?

While it’s crucial that you only click on the behaviour you want at each step, if you do accidentally click, it’s necessary that you follow up with a reward. By doing this, your cat will associate the click with the reward. Meanwhile, refusing them the treat will be the undoing of all of your hard work.

You Do Not Have To Carry A Clicker And Treats Everywhere You Go!

Clicker training is a great way of motivating cats to learn new actions and behaviors. You can also use it to mark a good choice your cat makes. Once they are proficient at whatever action you teach or behavior they do, you may put the clicker away and use again when teaching them something new.


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