Clicker Training for Shelter Cats

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At Happy Cats Haven, we have been using Clicker Training–which we call Clicker Play because it’s so much fun for the cats–since we opened in 2011. Along with our Shy Cat Handling techniques, it’s one of the best methods we have for recovering traumatized cats from losing their families.

We count on Clicker Training to help us strengthen the human-feline bond. Its predictability and power of rewards help show our scared kitties they can trust humans again.

We often have cats who are shy around strangers, which keeps them from coming to meet their potential families. After even a session or two of Clicker Training, though, they often come right the door with their confidence boosted!

A recent study done just north of us at Fort Collins Cat Rescue reinforces our experience that any cat can be taught new behaviors…and have fun doing it.

Most Clicker Training is based on food as a reward. The researchers experienced the same challenges that any cat trainer does with getting a cat to eat, only of course much more intensified in a shelter situation where their fear is very high at first.

Not surprisingly, cats who wouldn’t eat the food (probably either because they were too scared or just didn’t like what was offered, as the treat was chosen for them if they didn’t choose it themselves) were less likely to learn the behaviors.

The study trained more difficult behaviors than we do for our cats, with Spin and High Five, along with the easier behaviors of Target and Sit.


Our Clicker Training goal is not the behavior per se (though it’s always fun to have a cat who loves to High Five). It’s the shift from fear to trust that we are looking for.

If a cat is too stressed to eat, Clicker Training isn’t going to be as effective as other Shy Cat techniques, like Play Therapy. That’s why we focus on finding the reward that works for each cat first before we even start training.

Next is making–or rebuilding–that connection. The quickest way to do that is to reward while using their names. This also has the added advantage of starting to train a cat to come to his or her name.

This very basic and simple behavior is one that is often overlooked with cat guardians. Many learned this the hard way during Colorado wildfires where so many cats perished because they were too scared to come when called…or simply were never trained for that.

If we set up the expectation that every cat can come when called, that could literally be a lifesaver for many cats…even ones with disabilities!

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Research shows that if a potential adopter thinks the cat likes them (“perceived friendliness”) they will be more likely to adopt. Kinda intuitive, right? Training cats to come to the front of the condo or colony when humans come in, especially when coming to their names, can be a powerful first step.

Teaching Target by touching a nose to a stick is another very simple behavior that can make a world of difference in interacting with shelter cats. This paper showed that this behavior was the easiest for them to teach too, at 79% of cats learning it within two weeks.

They were less successful with teaching a cat to Sit, which we routinely do in a session or two. Perhaps that was because they were working with cats in cages, as opposed to walking around with them in a colony where a Sit may be easier to capture and not have to be lured.

Some people ask, “What happens to this training if the adopter doesn’t continue it?” Most cats won’t offer their tricks spontaneously, but some will, given the right environmental cues.

However, that misses the point completely. It’s not about the tricks. It’s about the trust. Clicker Training builds trust and that, in whatever form, should be in everyone’s bag of tricks to help their shelter cats become more adoptable.

Click below for more info on Clicker Play…for all cats!

Clicker Play for Cats

Clicker Training Basics

Clicker Training Behaviors for Cats

Quick Clicker Cheat Cheet

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