Cat Training: The first behavior

Once you have loaded the clicker using the appropriate reinforcer it’s time to start training! The first step is to decide what behavior you want to train. Teaching “sit” is a great place to start since your cat already commonly engages in this behavior and it will be an easy one to catch.

IMG_20150325_172107The key is to not force your cat to do the behavior, but to catch the cat when it does do the behavior. Watch this video of me training sit. Note that I am marking the sit behavior using the clicker when the behavior is occurring. It is important not to click too soon or too late but precisely when the cat engages in the behavior. This will mark which behavior you like and let the cat know that when it engages in that behavior it will get a reward shortly after.

The more sit-> click+reward pairings you do the faster the cat will pick up on the behavior you like. Use small sized reinforcers (if using food use small pieces, if using play/attention use short bouts) so the cat does not become satiated on the reward and you are able to do more pairings in a session. Additionally, keep the first training sessions short (~5 min per session). Try using play to get the cat to stand (increasing the likelihood they will sit again) or use a  lure to guide the animal to the desired behavior.

Once the cat connects that you like the sit behavior, and is sitting reliably the next step is to add in a cue (hand or vocal signal) to indicate to the cat when you would like them to sit. But, don’t add this just yet! The cat must already be reliably engaging in the behavior before you add the cue, and doing this prematurely can actually confuse them. Watch for the next blog post about when and how to add in the cue!

Cat Training: Loading the clicker

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 7.50.07 PMThe first step in training your cat is finding a way to communicate to them what behaviors you like. One way of doing this is to associate a signal (a neutral stimulus) with a natural response. Remember learning about Pavlov’s dogs in psychology? Ivan Pavlov found that an initially neutral stimulus (metronome- although it is widely believed he used a bell!) can be paired with food to elicit a natural, reflexive response (salivation). After multiple pairings with food, the metronome click by itself became enough to elicit the salivation response. Upon hearing the metronome the dogs “anticipated” the food would soon be delivered and began to salivate in response to the metronome alone. This is the basic concept of classical conditioning and an important aspect of animal training.

20150809_160921In animal training people often use clickers to produce a neutral “click” sound. There is nothing special about the “click” until it is given meaning (conditioned). In reality you could condition almost any neutral stimulus (I’ve heard people use a harmonica, bell, snap of their finger and even light for blind animals) but clickers often produce a consistent, distinct sound which makes training with it simple. The idea of the “click” is to mark the behavior you like and want the cat do more frequently. So, first the “click” must be associated with something good (as the metronome was with the food). The click essentially tells the cat, “I like what you did, you’ll get rewarded for it soon”. This is called a bridging stimulus because it marks the exact moment of the behavior you like- bridging the time between that behavior and when the animal is rewarded.

Step 1:
Decide what your reward (or reinforcer) will be! A reinforcer is something you give to your cat that will cause an increase in the desired behavior. This will be something your cat finds rewarding and wants to work for. You can use food, praise/attention, and play as a reinforcer. For food I suggest trying cooked chicken, tuna, or summer sausage. See this post for more information on picking the correct reinforcer for your cat. This is very much on an individual basis- your cat will decide what is reinforcing for them and each cat will be different. It will be hard to ask your cat to work for an item they do not find rewarding, so make sure you choose the correct reinforcer!

Step 2:
Pair the click (or whatever stimulus you have chosen) with your reward, or reinforcer. If you don’t do this the cat will not understand what the click means. To do this, simply click and then give your cat the reinforcer. Do this multiple times, ~30x with small amounts of the reinforcer (if using food use small pieces, if play/petting do short bouts), until the cat associates the click with the idea that a reward will be delivered soon. You will start to notice the cat expect something when they hear the click. For example you may click and the cat will immediately look up at you, waiting expectantly for their treat. Once this happens you know your kitty understands the meaning of the click. Then it is time to start training!

Cat Training: Finding the right reinforcer

IMG_20141029_171605Cats, like dogs, can be easily trained. It is all about finding the proper motivator for your specific cat. What can you give your cat that will reinforce that behavior, or cause that behavior to increase in frequency? Some cats may be very motivated by food while others may be more motivated by play, praise or physical attention. In my house, Cecilia is motivated by food (especially cooked chicken and hard food treats) and play while Macy is motivated more by praise and attention.

In order to determine what motivates your cat consider their personality. Is your cat extremely affectionate? If so, try reinforcing behaviors with praise and petting. Is your cat high energy? If so, try reinforcing behavior with short bouts of play. Does your cat often break into bags and steal treats? If so, try reinforcing with their favorite foods. Considering what your cat enjoys will help you understand what motivates them. Often new trainers focus too much on reinforcing behaviors with food treats, but some cats can be picky about food and many cats seem to be more motivated by activity, such as play.

IMG_20150717_114321In fact, while I was leading a recent kitten clicker training class we found (after a personality assessment) that 75% of the kittens were more motivated by play than by food. Next time you have issues training your kitty with treats try reinforcing with short bouts of play or petting instead.

Contemplating Cat Personality in Cat-Human Relationships

Oregonians- check out an upcoming talk where I will discuss the role of cat personality in the cat-human relationship!

Contemplating Cat Personality in Cat-Human Relationships
Is your cat a unique individual with a distinct personality? Scientific research indicates- yes! Cats display a wide range of personalities that influence their relationship with humans. This talk will examine current feline personality research as well as the applied benefits of considering personality when adopting, training or interacting with cats.

WHEN: July 9, 2015 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
WHERE: Willamette Humane Society Education Hall 4246 Turner Road Southeast Salem, OR 97317


Free Kitten Training Class in Corvallis, OR

Hello all! I will be leading another free kitten training class in Corvallis, OR winter 2016. Please see the below flyer for details. Contact me if you have any questions or if are interested in enrolling the the class. It will be a lot of fun for humans and kittens alike!

See this link for videos from the previous kitten training class!