Cat Training: When to add a cue

After your chosen behavior has been trained you can add in a cue. This cue can be a word such as “sit!” or can be a hand signal, such as a closed fist. Cues are important because they give you the control to ask your cat to engage in the behavior when you wish. You ask them to sit, and they do so knowing they will receive a reward.

Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for "stand", a hand cue.

Cecilia standing in response to her current cue for “stand”, a hand cue.

It is important not to add the cue too soon, before the animal understands the behavior. This can actually confuse them and make it harder for them to connect the cue to the behavior. For example, what if you were trying to teach someone how to catch a baseball? If the learner does not connect that they are supposed to catch the baseball in their mitt then yelling “catch!” will not help them learn either the behavior or the meaning of the word “catch!”

When a cat has learned a behavior, they will often begin engaging in it when they want a treat. For example, my cat Cecilia is great at standing on her back legs. When we began training the stand behavior she would come into the room and stand up to see if she got a treat. I added the cue only after I was sure Cecilia made the connection between standing and receiving a reward .

The cue becomes an antecedent (or a signal), that indicates to the cat they should engage in the behavior in order to receive a reward.

How would you add a cue? Lets take “Stand” as an example:

  • First present the cue word at the same time as you click. This way the cat associates the word with the behavior you are marking with the click.
    Click!/Say “Stand!” (simultaneously) -> reward
  • Slowly you can present the cue word earlier. Present the cue right as you see the cat about to stand.
    Say “Stand!” (just when they begin to stand)->click (when stands)->reward
  • Continue to move the cue up earlier and earlier, until the cue totally precedes the behavior.
    Say “Stand” when you want them to do so. Cat will then stand, you can then click! -> reward
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