Clicker training, the science-based system of teaching behavior with positive reinforcers and a marker signal, is becoming immensely popular, world-wide, with some dog owners and trainers, while still being rejected by others. It seems so alien, so different from traditional training, that many are very reluctant to try this new system on their already well-trained dogs. Why not leave your dogs out of the picture for the time being, and explore the clicker experience for yourself, with an animal you don't really need or expect reliable performance from: Your cat.
Why train a cat?
Why would you want to train a cat? Everyone knows you can't. 'Training cats' is an oxymoron. 'Herding cats' is a metaphor for trying to do the impossible. Besides, cats don't usually need training; that's one reason we enjoy their company. They come complete with everything they need to know. In fact, your cat probably trains you.
Clicking, however, is not just training, as we usually think of it. It doesn't consist of commanding and obeying. It's more like a communication system that works in both directions. Without human language, you are striking a bargain with the cat. 'If you do something cute, I'll pay you with a click and a treat."
The arbitrary click identifies what you like, during the moment that it's happening, and promises to pay for it with something the cat likes. From your standpoint you may be teaching the cat to come when it's called, or to roll over. From the cat's standpoint, it is training you to click. Cats like that; and the person with the clicker becomes a much more interesting person, to a cat.
And, for today's city cats, often living out their entire lives confined indoors, clicker training can provide valuable mental and physical stimulation; it enriches the cat's life and can help the cat to be healthier, happier, and a more responsive companion.
Let's get going! Your first clicker session
Pick a time when your cat is hungry. If you leave food down all the time, take it away for two hours before your first session. Now prepare 20 or 30 little pea-sized treats of fresh cooked chicken, or cheese, or tuna-something delicious, not dry kibble. And get out your clicker.
I suggest that you begin your new clicker relationship by teaching the cat to touch a target. This is an easy behavior to build, and it has a lot of potential uses. A target can be any stick-like object, such as a pencil, a chopstick, or a wooden. Sit down in a comfortable and familiar place where you and the cat often interact: in the kitchen, at the breakfast table, or on the living room couch. Now, pick up a treat, and simultaneously click and give the cat the treat. You may hand the treat to the cat, drop it on a plate, or just toss it in front of the cat. I like to toss the treat near the cat so the cat has to move to get it, each time. Relax and do nothing while the cat eats the treat. Now take up the target and hold it an inch or two in front of the cat. The cat is highly likely to look at the end of the target stick or even to sniff it. Click as the cat's nose touches the stick. Then put the target out of sight and give a treat. The instant the cat finishes chewing, hold the target stick out again. Wait for a touch. Click and treat.
Why can't you just use your voice, and say "Good kitty," instead of bothering with the clicker? In part, because the clicker is completely different from anything else in the environment. Your voice means many things to the cat, but the click only means "Yes, you got it right! You win!" Secondly, the click is brief and sharp, and provides accurate information about what you are paying for. Like a camera, the click can catch the tail in mid-flick, the paw in mid-air, the cat in mid-jump. The cat KNOWS what it got clicked for, and can easily do it again. Finally, the sharp click sound provides feedback to you, too. We are finding that it's hard to identify one's own timing errors when using a spoken word. If you click too late, however, after the cat bumped the target, say, instead of while the touch was happening, you will recognize that you did so, and be able to click a little faster the next time.
Sooner or later, after one session or five, your cat will be approaching the target with vigor, bumping it, and maybe swatting at it with a paw. See if you can get it to follow a moving target a step or two. Next, take the cat a little further, two or three feet, maybe. Can you lead the cat back and forth? Great! You can use your target stick to get the cat to jump up onto a piece of furniture, or to get it to leap down. You can have the cat jump over your arm just for fun, or from one chair or stool to another You can target the cat into its carrying case and out again. Perhaps sometime you will really need the cat to do something it doesn't want to do-to come out from under the bed on moving day, for example. Even if the cat is far too stressed to care about food, your target may do the trick all by itself.
Sometimes cats catch on to clicker training with mind-boggling speed. One cat owner, in her very first attempt, trained her cat to follow a pencil across the couch, and then to jump through an embroidery hoop. Another beginner reported that in one session she taught the cat to station herself on a little stool in the kitchen; and then to 'sit up' in begging position like a dog. An hour later, her husband was in the kitchen snacking on some cold fried chicken-and lo and behold, the cat was doing her 'sit up' on the stool. In that first session the cat had learned not just a trick but a whole new way to communicate with people, much more specific than mere meowing. Obviously, she wanted some of that chicken, and of course she got her wish.
Catching something cute
Clicker training doesn't always have to be a project. One of the most delightful things to do with the clicker is just to reward your cat for the amusing little things cats do on their own. How do you begin? Keep a clicker handy, and notify the cat when it's doing something cute. Keep a few dry treats in your pocket or in a jar in each room, so you have something with which to pay the cat. If you don't have a clicker handy, use a mouth click; if you don't have a treat, you can go get one afterwards. Marking the action as it happens is the crucial element.
What do you click? Anything. The cat rolls over? Click. The cat pats a ball and sends it rolling? Click. The cat leaps sideways? Click. The cat chases its tail? Click! By and by the cat will begin doing the behavior on purpose, hoping to make you click. "See me? I'm rolling over." "See me? I'm doing my Sit." Good! Click!