An indoor existence, without much enrichment, can be a boring one. I see it a lot in my work – see, a bored cat is often a misbehaving cat! Without regular physical and mental stimulation, a seemingly cute little cat can often become the bane of a cat guardian’s life.
An un-enriching environment can be a huge stressor, manifesting in behaviours like aggression (towards humans or other animals), attention seeking behaviours (“let’s see what my guardian does when I push this glass of water off the table!”), and even stress-related health issues like over-grooming or bladder/urinary tract inflammation.
Clicker training is a wonderful activity that can be a part of an overall satisfying life for both cat and guardian, and can help enrich a cat’s routine. You’re probably thinking, “What?! You can’t train a cat! Cats train us!”. Make no mistake, cats can be clicker trained too with great results!
Before we get into exactly what clicker training is, I just want to go through some of its many benefits.
Well, first of all, I’m not saying you have to. See, I like the idea of a cat just being a cat, and not having to perform for humans. But it does come in handy in many situations, and not just for showing off to your friends!
A regular, rewarding clicker training session is an amazing way to bond with a cat. For your cat, a fun activity like this creates massive positive associations with you. This is itself can be a great way to get a cat to warm to a particular household member or partner that they may not feel too comfortable with.
It can be a great way to focus a mentally or physically energetic cat. Not only is clicker training physically stimulating, but also hugely mentally stimulating and provides a fantastic outlet for cats that clearly need it.
Clicker training is not just for tricks! I love it when it’s used to train highly functional behaviours that make life easier or safer. Here are some examples:
– Go to a particular location (e.g. cat tree) or mat – very useful when introducing cats, visitors arriving, when eating food etc.
– Use their carrier to make vet trips easier
– Stay – useful for cats who rush out the door when it opens
– Be calm around other cats
– Play nicely with other cats
And the list goes on.
Clicker training is a form of conditioning that uses a clicker to make a sound that “marks” the behaviour you want. It’s highly effective and can be used to train behaviours in relatively short amounts of time.
I’ll try not to get to science-y here. Essentially, we are using two conditioning processes – Respondent (or classical) conditioning, and Operant Conditioning.
Most people have learnt about Pavlov’s dogs in high-school science. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who conditioned his dogs to salivate when he rang a bell. To do this, he ‘paired’ the sound of the bell, with something that caused the dogs to salivate (food). By doing this repetitively, eventually just the sound of the bell would involuntarily cause the dogs to salivate.
Involuntary is the key word here, and the difference between respondent and operant conditioning.
We are going to use this concept to make the ‘click’ sound of the clicker a really positive and rewarding thing in the mind of your cat!
We do this by ‘charging the clicker’, which is exactly what Pavlov did with the bell. Essentially, you need to click the clicker, then immediately treat your cat with something really yum.
By doing this repetitively, your cat’s brain starts to associate the sound of the clicker with food, and eventually the click sound is a reward in itself and a marker to expect a treat.
So we can now use the click to mark the behaviours we want during training. This part uses the operant conditioning process. I won’t go into detail explaining it, except to say that all basic animal training uses this process. It’s simply getting your cat to behave in a certain way to a command (stimulus), and rewarding with a reinforcer (in this case, the clicker and a treat).
Good question. There are a few solid reasons why clicker training is used by trainers around the world rather than just using the pure treat method.
Firstly, clicking allows ‘marking’ of the behaviour you want. This way, the cat knows exactly which behaviour he was doing when he was reinforced. Using a treat by itself is a bit more clumsy and treating too late will confuse which behaviour was the one being rewarded.
Secondly, it allows distance-reinforcement. What I mean by this is that you don’t have to be right next to your cat to treat him when using a clicker. For close-proximity training like getting him to ‘sit’, this isn’t such a big deal. But when you’re more than a metre away, like if you’re training him to go to a mat, or play nice with another cat, the distance afforded by the click becomes necessary.
Thirdly, a ‘charged’ clicker allows you to not have to treat every time. As mentioned above, through repetition, the click sound becomes as rewarding as the food. Though clicking too many times without pairing it with a treat will make it lose its charge.
That’s clicker training in a nutshell. It’s a wonderfully enriching, and incredibly bonding, which sounds like an excellent thing for an indoor cat!
If you’re interested in learning more, simply search YouTube for “cat clicker training” and you’ll be presented with a huge repository of training videos!