Don’t believe everything you hear about cats!
Myths and legends have been spun around cats ever since people started sharing their world with them. Some myths paint cats as exotic and mysterious, others have cats in league with the devil. Many of these erroneous myths about cats persist today. Two myths that are prevalent among cat owners are that cats cannot be trained to do tricks, such as shaking hands, and that cats will do whatever they want to do, regardless of the input from the people around them. Another popular belief is that it is impossible to change unwanted cat behaviors. Unfortunately, these misconceptions often have fatal consequences for the cats; many cats are surrendered to shelters and/or euthanized for resolvable behavior problems.
Problem behaviors can be resolved successfully and, depending on the challenge, quickly through a combination of addressing the behavior triggers, environmental management, clicker training, and other positive reinforcement techniques. In addition to helping resolve behavior problems, clicker training is mentally stimulating, helps develop feelings of security, relieves stress, and builds and strengthens bonds between the cat and the clicker trainer. Clicker training is also an effective way of focusing the cat away from the causes of the problem behaviors while giving the cat something more appropriate and fun to do. Clicker training is a fun way to teach cats a variety of tricks. Most of all, clicker training is flexible and it’s powerful.
A short sampling of behaviors and activities that respond well to clicker training includes: counter surfing, door darting, many types of aggressions, introducing a new cat to resident pets, furniture scratching, trauma-free visits to the vet, and socializing shy cats.
The first step in basic cat clicker training is assembling three fundamental tools. These are: a primary motivator, a secondary conditioner, and, of course, most importantly—a cat! A primary motivator is something so incredibly motivating that the cat will do just about anything for it. The easiest primary motivator to use is a treat. Since every cat is an individual, one cat’s treat may be uninspiring to another. Some cats love freeze-dried chicken, others love fish. Cats who love their regular food can be highly motivated to work for either a small amount of canned food or for a piece of dry food. Primary motivators are small. A food treat can be as tiny as an eighth of an inch or one quarter of a piece of dry kibble. One lick from a spoonful of canned food is the perfect treat size for cat clicker training.
The best times to clicker train cats are when they are the most motivated. If food is the primary motivator, then working with your cat right after she’s eaten her dinner may not be the best idea unless the treat is something the cat is crazy about. Then there are those cats who just don’t give a hoot about treats, but may love to be groomed or petted. These cats can be motivated with one brush stroke or a quick cuddle.
The first step is assembling three fundamental tools: a primary motivator, a secondary conditioner, and, of course, a cat!
The secondary conditioner is a device that always performs the same action every time it is activated. My favorite secondary conditioner is Karen Pryor’s i-Click clicker, available through the clickertraining.com store. It has a softer sound than other clickers and responds immediately when the button is pushed. Be aware that some shy and fearful cats startle easily. When working with shy kitties, wrap the clicker in a sock or put it in your pocket to muffle the sound. Holding the clicker behind your back will also soften the click. A clicking ball point pen also works as a secondary conditioner. Whatever device you use, don’t click it indiscriminately, or it will lose its power.
Finally, you need a cat. Cats of all ages, including kittens and elderly cats, can be clicker trained easily. No matter the age of the cat, clicker training needs to be fun for everyone—cats and their clicker trainers alike. Never force a cat to participate. The motivator might not be motivating enough or something else might grab the cat’s attention.
In the early stages of clicker training, the sessions are usually short. A session may consist of only five or six repetitions, after which the cat might become distracted or just not want to participate. This is normal. Stop the session, give the cat a break, and try again later. Expect to have many short clicker sessions when you start clicker training your cat.
Click and treat
After assembling the basics, pair the secondary conditioner, the clicker, with the primary motivator, the treat. It’s easy! Simply click and then toss your cat a small treat. Wait until she eats the treat and makes eye contact before you click and treat her again. It can take between 5 and 20 repetitions until the cat has a strong positive association with the clicker. The clicker, once paired with the treat, becomes a powerful communication tool, communicating to the cat when she is doing a desired behavior.
The simple click, along with other behavior tools and management, can help socialize a fearful cat, assist cats in overcoming their hatred and fears of cat carriers, and change unwanted behaviors such as furniture scratching and some aggressions. Clicker training builds from that simple click. The next steps are training the cat to touch a target, such as a chopstick or pencil, and to stand on a location or object, such as a placemat, when cued. Target and mat training are effective tools for changing other bad behaviors such as counter surfing, door darting, and some aggressions.
Clicker training can also benefit elderly cats suffering from cognitive dysfunctions. Have I mentioned that clicker training is powerful stuff?
Putting it together
It’s important to understand the cause(s) of an unwanted behavior before attempting to stop or change it. After the triggers are understood thoroughly, address the reasons for the behavior, modify the environment as needed, and give the cat something more appropriate to do that satisfies the behavior needs. Clicker training is a fantastic tool that will help accomplish this. It focuses the cat away from the unwanted behavior and its triggers, and also reinforces the cat for an appropriate, alternative behavior.
Destructive furniture scratching is one of many unwanted behaviors with which clicker training can help. The first step in stopping the behavior is to understand the reasons that cats scratch. Since there are scent glands located on the bottom of paw pads, when cats scratch they are marking territory and broadcasting information about themselves to other animals. Cats will scratch when they are feeling conflicted; they also scratch when they’re playing. Scratching is an energy-release and cats stretch and scratch after a satisfying nap. And, of course, cats give themselves perfect manicures when they scratch. In a nutshell—cats have to scratch. The good news is that cats can be taught to stay away from human furniture and focus on cat furniture.
Stopping a cat from destroying the furniture starts by making the targeted scratch areas unavailable to sharp little cat claws, while simultaneously addressing the cat’s instinctual need to scratch. Of course, the cat has to be versed in basic clicker training, too. Cover the target area, such as the sofa, with something that the cat doesn’t particularly want to scratch. Sticky Paws®, a double-sided tape, is perfect for this. Sheets and other materials that are hard for cats to sink their claws into work well, too. When making an area off limits, place another more appropriate scratching surface, such as a tall scratching post, directly in front of the blocked area. The scratching post needs to be both appealing to the cat and a different material and texture than the sofas and rugs. Scratching posts should be tall enough for the cat to stretch up and scratch, and they need to be sturdy so that the cat can’t pull them down. When the cat finds she can’t scratch the sofa, she will start scratching the post that is in front of the blocked target area.
With repetition, the act of scratching the appropriate surfaces will become self-rewarding.
Clicker training works wonders for reinforcing good scratching etiquette. Click while your cat is scratching the post and then give her a treat, reinforcing her scratching the appropriate cat furniture. Every time you see her scratching the right surface, click and then treat. Timing is crucial. Clicking after or before she scratches isn’t very effective because the click reinforces whatever behavior she is doing at the instant of the click.
It won’t take long for your cat to learn proper scratching etiquette—you won’t have to camp out in the living room 24/7, armed with a clicker and treats. With repetition, the act of scratching the appropriate surfaces will become self-rewarding, especially when the previously targeted objects now stick to the sensitive paw pads and are unpleasant to scratch. When the cat is scratching the cat furniture habitually, gradually decrease the use of the clicker. Treats can be phased out slowly, replaced with verbal praise.
The scratching post won’t have to live forever in the middle of the living room. After your cat is demonstrating excellent scratching habits for a few weeks, the post can be moved slowly, one inch at a time and on a daily basis, to another location in the room. Sticky Paws® and the other furniture protectors do not have to be adhered on your furniture permanently either. Gradually remove them, after your cat is scratching the approved cat furniture consistently.
Clicker cats without boundaries
Clicker training is a powerful tool that can help modify and stop unwanted behaviors, but it is also a fun way of teaching cats tricks. Most cats enjoy learning; it’s mentally stimulating and strengthens the relationship between the cat and her favorite person. Cats can be taught tricks such as sitting, shaking hands, giving high fives, playing dead, jumping through hoops, closing and opening doors, as well as many others. The sky is the limit! Teach tricks based on natural cat behaviors. Cats jump, so jumping over a pole or through a hoop on cue is a natural. Cats also flop, so an extension of the flop is teaching a cat to play dead when cued. Whether you use clicker training to modify behaviors or teach new ones, it needs to be fun for everyone—cat and trainer alike.