How to Train Your Cat Using a Clicker
Your cat may seem like he has a mind of his own, but clicker training is surprisingly effective. A clicker, discipline, and treats can go a long way! Whether you’re trying to train your cat to stop bad behaviors or you’re simply hoping to teach your cat a few basic tricks, these guidelines about clicker training for cats can help set you up for success.
For expert tips on how to train your cat, we reached out to Marny Nofi, a senior behavior manager on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Behavioral Sciences Team. Read on for her best advice.
Why Cat Training Is Important
Cat training has benefits that go beyond teaching your cat how to sit. “You’re stimulating his body and his mind, which helps keep him healthy,” Nofi says. “Mental stimulation will also keep him feeling enriched and tired, which means a cat that’s less likely to perform common nuisance behaviors due to boredom.” That’s right, if your cat has a habit of knocking things over and making noise at night, training can help. Additionally, training can help your cat build a better relationship with people, reducing fear and problem behaviors such as aggression.
Clicker Training Basics
Clicker training is a method of “second-order” positive reinforcement training that uses a sound to communicate when an animal is doing something right. If you’ve already searched for online videos on cat training, you’ve probably seen a clicker in action.
What’s a Clicker?
A typical clicker is a small plastic box you can hold in the palm of your hand, with a metal tongue you press quickly to make a “click” sound. “For some cats, the sound of a traditional box clicker can be scary since it’s so loud,” Nofi says. “Some clickers have a softer sound that may be more appealing to cats.”
With clicker training, you can easily and quickly teach your cat any type of behavior, ranging from the useful sit and stay to sillier tricks like wave and fetch.
How Does Clicker Training Work?
Using a clicker can make cat training easier and faster—partly because the click sound communicates the exact moment when an animal is doing something right. When training with a clicker, you first teach your animal to associate each click with a reward (say, a favorite treat). Once he understands the click always comes with a treat, he’ll be able to learn that certain behaviors will earn him a treat.
Can You Train Without a Clicker?
Of course! “If you don’t have a clicker, you can use a pen that makes a clicking sound or simply use a tongue-click, or a one-syllable word such as ‘yes,’” Nofi says. Clickers are commonly used by trainers, but any unique sound can work when used regularly and consistently. You can even download a cat clicker app on your phone if you don’t have an actual clicker.
Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats, Step-by-Step
“The first step is to find a treat that your cat goes crazy for,” Nofi says. (Fresh chicken diced into tiny cubes, bits of tuna, regular commercial cat treats, or even any meat-flavored baby food are all good bets.) Whatever the treat, make sure it’s a small piece that your cat can consume quickly and stay focused on the task at hand, Nofi advises.
Introducing Your Cat to the Clicker
Cats have even shorter attention spans than dogs, so keep your training sessions to just a few minutes at a time. After a few sessions, your cat will begin to catch on.
- Sit down with your cat, and have a bowl or saucer of treats within reach.
- Click the clicker, and immediately toss a treat to your cat.
- Repeat this process at random intervals, as long as your cat is interested.
- When your cat begins to understand each click sound results in a treat, he may begin to look directly at the treats when he hears the sound, instead of the clicker itself.
Behavior Training with a Clicker
Once your cat seems to understand that each click means “treat,” you’re ready to move onto some basic behaviors, like sit.
- First, make sure you have your cat’s attention. With the clicker in one palm, and a tasty treat in the other, start by holding the treat up to the cat’s nose.
- When he begins to sniff the treat, slowly move the treat in an arc from his nose to just between his ears. Your cat will likely follow this arc motion with their eyes and nows, and as its chin raises up and back, its rear will go down.
- The instant your cat’s bottom hits the floor, click and give him a treat—this timing is essential in teaching them the correct behavior.
- Repeat this practice several times over your training session.
Pro Tips for Clicker Training Success
Training with a Treat-Eager Cat
“Some cats will try to grab for the treat in your hand when luring them,” Nofi says. “For these cats, you can alternatively teach them to touch a target stick.” Once your cat knows he gets rewarded for touching his nose to a stick, you’ll be able to lure him in place to train for other behaviors.
Finding the Right Reward
Since many cats aren’t used to being trained, finding the right reward for your cat is key. It might be a bit of tuna or their favorite treat, but for cats unmotivated by food, it might be a few seconds of play with a toy.
Ensure Your Cat is Incentivized to Work for Each Reward
If your cat doesn’t seem to be responding to training with treats, it might be that your cat already has easy access to food—all the time. If this is the case, Nofi suggests switching to set mealtimes and doing training sessions before mealtimes to help motivate your cat to work for a treat.
Additionally, a cat who isn’t responding to training might not understand what you want him to do. To help, make rewards more easily accessible to help him build up to other behaviors. For example, reward your cat for simply sniffing your hand to work him up to, say, sitting.
Clicker Training Multiple Cats at a Time
It's absolutely possible to clicker train multiple cats at a time Nofi says. “Cats can tell when the click is meant for them, so there’s no need to separate cats or avoid clicking in front of a cat when training another.” Cats who fight over treats, however, might need to be separated for training sessions.
Training for Good Behavior, and Reducing Unwanted Behavior
You can teach your cat any type of behavior with a clicker—sit, stay, and target touching are great behaviors to start with. Other fun tricks include fetch, wave, and jumping through a hoop or into their cat carrier might prove useful as well!
On the flip side, training your cat to stop bad behavior requires a multifaceted approach that teaches them what they can and can’t do.
If you are trying to teach your cat not to scratch your couch, for example, you’ll want to make the couch a less desirable place to scratch (perhaps by putting double-sided sticky tape where he likes to scratch) and interrupt him if he tries to scratch there, Nofi says. When your cat scratches in the right place (like his scratching post) you can reward him with a click and a treat every time he uses the correct scratching surface.
No matter the breed or age of your cat, it’s possible to train him—and it will probably alleviate some fears your cat may have had in the past. When it comes to training cats (and all animals), remember regular training sessions and consistency will go a long way.