Clicker training is not your Grandpa’s obedience training. You don’t force the cat to do anything. This means your cats choose to do the behavior instead of being coerced, which makes them think and learn for themselves.

It also makes them your partners in training, rather than your subjects. That’s why we call it Clicker Play. It’s not about obedience. It’s about learning. And fun!

THE CLICKER
The first step in clicker training is to charge the clicker. In other words, charging lets the animal know the clicker is connected to a reward. As Karen Pryor says, every time you click, you’re saying, “That’s it! I’ll pay you for exactly that!”

You give the cat a treat and then immediately click so the two are permanently associated. About 10 clicks is all it takes before the cat understands the click is connected to the treat.

Pet stores sell box clickers, but they may be too loud for some cats. Try a couple of clicks with one and if your cat reacts negatively, use either a softer clicker like the I-click, a ballpoint pen or simply your mouth. A mouth click has the advantage of freeing up your hands for treats and props, but you may have to practice getting it as consistent as a mechanical clicker.

THE TREAT
Another big difference between training cats and training dogs is that most dogs are very food-oriented. Most cats, being free-fed, are not.

It’s a biological advantage for a solitary hunter like a cat to be suspicious of new food. Most modern cats are fed the same thing every day, so this natural tendency is reinforced. Most cats are also fed too much for their sedentary lifestyles.

We recommend simply letting the food run out overnight and training in the morning when the cat is more food-motivated, or vice versa. Putting your cat on a schedule for feeding can also make training more rewarding…and keep your kitty from getting overweight.

Finding the right treat is often the biggest challenge in training cats. You want your cat to really look forward to the treat, like you and your favorite dessert!

People use commercial cat treats, freeze dried treats, cubes of cheese, bonito fish flakes and bits of chicken or tuna (click here for our Tuna Jerky recipe). We’ve found the most reliable treat for most cats is a lick of his or her favorite wet food or meat baby food (like Beechnut, which has no additives) off a spoon. You’ll want to feed as little as you can get away with so your cat doesn’t fill up too quickly or have digestive upsets from too rich food, especially when training a kitten.

GETTING THE BEHAVIORS
Clicker trainers have 3 main ways of getting the behaviors they want: CAPTURING, SHAPING or LURING.

  • Capturing is simply waiting for the cat to do the behavior, like capturing a Sit by waiting for a standing cat to relax, then clicking and treating the instant its rear hits the floor. This is the easiest method.
  • Shaping is rewarding a succession of small behaviors that lead to a bigger one. If we were to train a Spin with shaping, we might click/treat for a glance in one direction, then a look, then a partial turn, then a further turn, then a full turn. This is a little more complex.
  • Luring is holding the treat so the cat can see/smell it and move toward the treat, into the behavior. The danger is that luring may only teach the cat to follow the food, since it can be difficult to fade. We believe there are times when a lure can be useful, like getting a cat to do something it might not naturally do, as long as it’s faded within 3 or 4 clicks.

THE CUE
It’s quieter at first. The click tells them what to do, not your voice. There’s no point in barking commands at someone who hasn’t been taught yet what the command means. When the cat proves it knows the behavior by voluntarily doing it 8 times out of 10, adding a hand signal or voice command will make sense…and stay with them.

See our next article for how to clicker train behaviors for your kitty!

THE RESOURCES

Treats

  • your cat’s favorite wet food, fed on a spoon
  • chicken or turkey baby food (Beechnut is best–no additives), fed on a spoon
  • bits of cooked chicken or fish
  • tuna or salmon jerky
  • bonito flakes
  • freeze dried meat (if your cat loves this, check the dog section for more affordable buying options
  • commercial treats, broken into small bits
  • bits of toasted nori seaweed
  • bits of cheese

Books

  • Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors through Positive Reinforcement /
    Marilyn Krieger
  • Clicker Training for Clever Cats / Martina Braun
  • Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals / Karen Pryor
  • Animals Make Us Human / Temple Grandin

Here are more helpful how-tos:
Clicker Play for Cats

Clicker Training Behaviors for Cats

Clicker Training Cheat Sheet

Clicker Training for Shelter Cats

Tuna Jerky Recipe

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