Don’t believe the naysayers who claim cats simply can’t be trained. Your precious four-legged friend is quite capable of learning how to do amazing things like stand, sit, give high fives, or go gracefully into her cat carrier.
Got a cat who’s displaying unwanted behaviors like exploring kitchen countertops or scratching furniture? Operant conditioning or clicker training as it’s more commonly called can quiet the critics who are adamant that cats can’t be trained.
Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist with his own YouTube channel, says clicker training teaches the cat to associate the sound of a click with a tasty treat that results in a response you desire. Clicker training not only entices your cat to perform but it also helps them develop self-control, provides mental stimulation, encourages physical exercise, builds confidence, and reinforces the bond between cat and cat parent, Dr. Frank at Best Friends Animal Society says in a YouTube video about clicker training.
Cats are not known to respond favorably to a firm “no” or a squirt from a water gun that might work for their canine counterparts. In fact, negative-based enforcement or punishing your cat for bad behavior can frighten or confuse your little guy, or worse, cause him to distrust you. Better to use positive reinforcement that teaches your kitty that certain behaviors can result in specific consequences. In clicker training, food is used as a positive reinforcement instead of the dreaded gush of water to the whiskers.
To begin, first gather the essentials: a clicker (an inexpensive gadget that produces a “click” when the metal strip inside the device is pressed); your cat’s favorite treats; and a target stick, which is optional. A target stick is used to keep your cat focused on the task at hand. Both tools are available at pet stores and online.
Clicker train your cat with these tips:
It’s all in the timing - Before you start a training session, make sure your cat is in the right frame of mind for learning. She should be hungry, motivated, and ready for interaction. Trying to get her interested right after dinner when she’s already full or when she’s ready for a nap will only frustrate both you and your kitty. Keep the first few sessions short so you can ease your cat into this new activity. The experts suggest less than five minutes or until your cat loses interest.
Charge the clicker - Choose a quiet place with few distractions so your cat can maintain focus. You’ll need to charge the clicker, which helps you establish the connection between the sound of the clicker and the food reward. To charge it, depress the clicker and reward your cat with a small treat or a morsel of canned food. Repeat as necessary until your cat makes the connection between the click and the resulting food reward.
Teaching the first trick - Once you’ve solidified the association, you can move on to your first trick. Experts in clicker training recommend first teaching your cat to come to the sound of the clicker. Place the target near your cat’s nose, encouraging him to sniff it, click and then reward. Move the target next to the cat so he has to turn to sniff it. Click and reward. Repeat, each time moving the target a little further away until your cat is following the target. Avoid multiple clicks, which will confuse your cat. Click once and reward immediately for desired behaviors.
Reward positive behaviors - To use clicker training to address unwanted behaviors like furniture scratching, you’ll need to make the surfaces your cat is destroying unattractive while at the same time making sure to provide appropriate places like scratching posts for them to perform this very natural behavior. This might mean covering the sofa with a sheet or using a deterrent like a spray or a sticky tape on the furniture until the cat learns his scratching is limited to the more acceptable places like his post. Place the post near where your cat likes to scratch your furniture. Use the clicker whenever you catch him digging his claws into the right surface and reward with a treat. Once your cat makes the association, you can slowly relocate the scratching post to a better suited place in the house.
New tricks generally take five to 10 minutes of training a day for up to three days before a cat commits it to memory, according to Jackson Galaxy. Correcting unwanted behaviors may take longer. Don’t give up! Successful clicker training will give you a sense of accomplishment, and your cat will be grateful for the additional attention since they never seem to get enough of it.