You may not believe us, but it is possible to teach cats things, not least with cat clicker training. So how does cat clicker training work, and why is it so effective?
How do I teach my cat basic commands with cat clicker training? Cat clicker training is a way of training cats. You use a small handheld clicker the size of a key fob to make clicking sounds when you train your cat. You have the cat perform the behavior, make the click to get your cat’s attention, and give it a treat. It will then build up an association between the positive behavior and the reward. You then start performing a cue before the cat displays the behavior (like saying ‘Sit’, or making a hand gesture) so that you can trigger the behavior. Eventually the cat will do the behavior when it sees the cue even if you don’t give it a reward. Clicker training is highly effective, and cats are surprisingly easy to train.
The guide below will first describe what cat clicker training is, the psychological basis of how it works, and whether it’s hard to train a cat. It will then go through clicker training step by step.
What Is Cat Clicker Training?
Cat clicker training is one of several methods of training cats. It’s highly effective if done right. The idea is to use a small handheld clicker to reinforce whatever behavior you’re trying to train.
What Is a Cat Clicker?
A cat clicker is a handheld device that makes a clicking sound. Your cat clicker will have a big button on it that you can push down, like the button on a camera that activates the shutter (or, at least, back when we all used cameras). This comparison is a good one because the click sound is similar to a camera shutter coming down.
They come in different shapes and sizes, but they all do the same thing. Most are small, about the size of a key fob. Some have a long stick coming from the end that can point at things. All work on the same basic principle: you click the clicker when your cat shows a behavior that you want it to repeat, and you give it a treat. Eventually the cat will display the behavior even without a treat.
How Does Cat Clicker Training Work? (Positive & Negative Reinforcement)
Clicker training comes from a basic understanding of the psychology of behavior. Behavior research has been ongoing for decades, and the idea that has dominated the field since the early days is that of positive and negative reinforcement.
These are terms that are commonly misunderstood. Most people think that positive reinforcement means reward, while negative reinforcement means punishment, but that’s not entirely accurate. Positive reinforcement is where you give something to encourage or discourage behavior. Whether that ‘something’ makes your cat happy or sad is a separate issue. Negative reinforcement is where you take something away to encourage or discourage behavior.
This might sound complicated, but it’s not. Giving your cat treats is an example of positive reinforcement, not because treats are good, but because you’re giving your cat something to make it behave a certain way. Negative reinforcement is what people have trouble with, but it’s basically the essence of the old gag Beatings will continue until morale improves! When the desired behavior is displayed, the bad thing is then taken away. That’s what negative reinforcement is.
Clicker training falls in the camp of positive reinforcement. Every time your cat does something you want—like offer a paw to shake—you first click the clicker, then give your cat a treat. Your cat will come to associate the sound of the click with receiving a treat, helping your cat understand cause and effect; you’re essentially teaching your cat If I do this, I’ll hear that click and get my treat!
Does Cat Clicker Training Work—Is It Hard to Train a Cat?
Clicker training is remarkably effective. It can be used both to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior.
Both the click and the treat are necessary at first. The click serves the initial purpose of breaking your cat’s concentration and getting its attention. With its attention suitably held, you then give it its treat. This is better than giving your cat a treat without the clicker, as you may not fully have your cat’s attention; plus, the clicker eventually serves as its own reward, as the cat displays the behavior just to hear the click by the end! Having both also stops your cat from learning random behaviors. You will occasionally want to give your cat treats outside of this context, and you don’t want it to associate those treats with whatever behavior it was then displaying.
Cats have a reputation as being hard to train. But if you think from the perspective of your cat, it’s easy. Dogs are eager to please and will learn behaviors solely because you want them to, but your cat will only do so if it gets something out of the deal. If you offer it something (like a treat) then it will learn anything that a dog can learn, and just as quickly. As is the case with other pets clicker training cats from a young age is easiest, but even older cats can learn new tricks.
Clicker Train Your Cat at Home [Step by Step]
Don’t get clicking just yet. If you clicker train the right way, it will be much less effort, and is more likely to be successful. Here’s how it’s done, step by step.
1) What Do You Need to Clicker Train a Cat?
You don’t need much to clicker train a cat. That, alongside its success rate, is what makes it so popular. Here’s everything you’ll need in a cat clicker training kit:
The first is a clicker. This is your key tool. There are other ways to teach cats behaviors, but if you want to use the clicker method, you can’t do it without a clicker! As stated above, they come in different shapes and sizes. Some are also louder than others. Pick one that has a noticeable sound, but isn’t too harsh; cats have sensitive hearing.
A ‘reinforcer’. The reinforcer is what makes your cat associate the click, and the behavior, with something good. There are lots of things you can use as reinforcers, but your cat’s favorite treat is a good bet. You could also pet your cat in a way that it likes if you don’t want to use expensive treats!
A pointer. Some people choose to clicker train with a pointer as well, or with a clicker that is also a pointer. The pointer has a small ball on the end of it that your cat con focus on. You can move it in different ways like tapping it on the floor or holding it above your cat’s head to trigger a behavior. You can also use your hands to do this if you prefer, but professional cat trainers like those that put on shows use pointers.
Patience. Your cat may not instantly make the association between its behaviors and the treats you offer. It may beg you for treats without realizing that it can get them by doing certain things. Being patient helps.
With everything you need ready, you can get started—but when should you start?
2) How Do You Clicker Train a Kitten? (The Sooner, The Better)
The sooner you start, the better. Cats have a critical learning window between the ages of 2 and 7 weeks, which is when they learn most of the things they need to know. At this age, cats learn:
- Whether to trust humans or not. Cats that aren’t socialized at this time can go on to never trust people.
- What kind of food to eat, and how to hunt for it. Behaviors like getting low to the ground when hunting, opening the eyes wide, and pouncing are all learned through play and observation.
- How to play fight with other cats (and how to fight for real).
By extension, then, it makes sense to clicker train your kitten at this time.
If you can’t do that, don’t worry. Cats are intelligent pets, so your adult cat can learn through the clicker training method too. It may just take longer and require more patience.
3) How to Start Clicker Training Your Cat
Now that you’re ready, you should pick something to teach your cat. Start with something small like getting your cat to come to you when you call its name.
Your cat will learn quicker if you teach one thing and then another rather than teaching everything at once. That’s because this method will help build your cat’s understanding of behavior = click = treat. You want to keep teaching each individual behavior until your cat displays it even when you don’t give a treat at the end. Examples of things you could start off with include:
- Getting your cat to come to you when you call
- Getting your cat to stand up/beg
- Getting your cat to lie down
But your cat won’t associate the sound of the click with, well, anything until you teach it exactly what it means…
4) How to Click & Give Treats
It’s only taken us until Step 4, but finally we can start clicking and giving treats!
You have to be strict about how you click and when you give treats. The click should always, always, always follow the behavior as soon as possible. Cats aren’t the best at identifying cause and effect, so the more obvious the link, the better. You should also give the treat soon after the click. This helps build up the chain of behavior—click—treat, which is what you need. Physically clicking the clicker is easy—it’s a small clicky button, so that bit, at least, we don’t need to teach you.
Be careful never to click outside of the context of clicker training. You want your cat to understand as clear as crystal that the click is only associated with certain behaviors. Clicking at random times would confuse it. You should also avoid clicking for or reacting to behaviors that you don’t want to encourage.
5) Pick a Relevant Cue
There are two approaches to clicker training. They’re both valid, but you may favor one over the other.
One is to just stick with the clicker. You click it each time your cat displays the behavior you want it to display. If you have taught your cat well, then it will associate the sound of the click with a reward. It will eventually build up enough of an association that the click becomes reward in itself. So long as you’re careful not to click at random times, as described above, that’s good enough.
The problem is that if you’re like most pet owners, you’d like to be able to cue the behavior. That means you can do something or say something that will make the cat display the behavior. If you just use the clicker, you can’t click it to tell the cat to sit, high-five or roll over.
What you have to do is introduce a cue. That could be a visual cue like holding up your hand for your cat to high-five, or it could be a sound-based cue like saying ‘Sit’ or ‘Lie down’, or whistling, or clicking your fingers—anything. The trick is to recognize when your cat is about to display the behavior and then giving the cue. Doing this over and over again will help your cat understand that when it hears/sees the cue, it can display the behavior and get a treat. This changes the dynamic to cue—behavior—click—treat.
You can pick any cue that you like so long as your cat can recognize it. Work with a cue that will be easy for your cat to interpret: a one-syllable sound cue, for example, or a basic gesture like holding your palm up. If you want to use a pointer, you can also use it here, moving it in certain ways related to the behavior: tapping it on the floor to have your cat lie down, placing it somewhere you want your cat to go, or holding it above your cat if you want it to beg. With any cue, you want to gradually make it sooner and sooner so that your cat will see the cue and perform the behavior even if they weren’t thinking of doing so.
6) How Long Does It Take to Clicker Train a Cat?
It takes much less time than you might imagine to clicker train a cat. Cats have a reputation as being less easily trained than dogs, but that’s not true—you just need to take a slightly different approach. Whereas dogs are more eager to please, cats have to know what’s in training for them (like treats or affection). If you provide that, they will learn just as quick as any dog.
When you get to the point that the cat does the behavior on cue, it can be considered fully trained. Depending on how long you can keep your cat’s focus, it can take between a day and a week to fully teach your cat any single behavior. You can then move on to other behaviors you want it to learn.
The answer does partly depend on what you’re teaching, though. The more tricky the task, or the more out of your cat’s comfort zone the task is, the longer it will take to teach.
7) Clicker Training Cat to Stop Bad Behavior
You can take clicker training to the next level by training away bad behaviors, too. While you should begin with something basic like a high-five, if your cat comes to understand how clicker training works, you can apply it to problem behaviors.
The trick is to train your cat into doing something as an alternative to the bad behavior. Let’s take the following bad behaviors as examples, and figure out how to train ‘around’ them:
- Your cat keeps peeing outside of its litter tray. Encourage it to use its litter tray by putting it somewhere your cat feels comfortable with it, and placing your cat next to it. Reward your cat as described above when it uses the tray.
- Your cat keeps scratching the furniture. Buy your cat a scratching post as an alternative; indoor cats need to scratch to keep their claws trimmed, so simply punishing your cat is ineffective. Reward your cat as described above when it scratches its scratching post.
- Your cat gets nervous around strangers. Remain calm around your cat and encourage your guest to do the same. Reward it for curious behavior (sniffing the stranger and getting closer to them).
Not all bad behaviors can be easily discouraged. If your cat fights with other cats, you won’t always be around when it does. And even if you are, when you reward your cat for not fighting, it won’t easily make the association between not doing something and getting rewarded—it’s easier for your cat to understand ‘Do X and get Y’. You can try, but don’t expect instant results.
8) When Should I Stop Clicker Training?
You can stop clicker training your cat any time that you like. You’re under no obligation to teach your cat anything if you don’t want to. You’re also under no obligation to keep teaching your cat after it learns one or two tricks if those are all you want it to know.
You don’t need to keep clicker training a particular command after your cat understand the cue associated with it. At this point, your cat already fully understands what you want it to do when you speak or perform the cue. Further training isn’t necessary. But if you want to keep teaching different commands, you can do so for as long as you like.
There may be a rough limit to what cats can learn. They have reasonable memories, and may understand somewhere between 20-30 different words if they’re taught them. If you teach your cat too much, then it may get to a point where it struggles to learn any more. It may also struggle to remember all of the things that it learned before. This also depends on the cat in question, as some cats are smarter than others, as is the case with any kind of pet.