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!

Do cats understand human emotions? Yes!

Here I talk about an extremely interesting study that examined the ability of cats to detect human emotion. The study is entitled “Social referencing and cat–human communication” and was published in Animal Cognition in 2015.

Merola and colleagues examined if cats have the ability to use social referencing– or the ability of an individual to evaluate another individuals’s emotional state and change their behavior in response. This behavior has been seen in many social species including humans, non-human primates, and dogs. This ability is especially helpful in unfamiliar situations where the animal may not know how to react.

For example, lets saIMG_20141029_171235y a cat has never encountered a dog before (an unfamiliar or strange event). The cat may not know how to react- should the cat be terrified and run for it’s life? Or, should it approach the dog and interact? If cats have the ability to socially reference their owner, they could observe how their owner reacts to the dog and adjust their behavior in response to their owner’s behavior. If the owner is happy to see the dog and interacts with it freely (positive emotional state), the cat may do so as well. Or, if the owner appears frightened of the dog and retreats (negative emotional state), the cat may do so as well.

So, Merola and colleagues presented the cats with two states, one in which their owner acted afraid of an unfamiliar object and the other in which their owner acted positively toward the unfamiliar object, which in this study was a fan turned on with streamers attached (making an unfamiliar noise as well). Researchers then observed the cat’s behavior in the different owner emotion conditions.

The researchers found the majority (79%) of cats exhibited referential looking, a measure of the social referencing ability in which the cat shifts their gaze from the unfamiliar object back to the owner to pick up social information. Additionally, cats “also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.

This is an interesting find, especially since we know so little about cat-human communication. This will not surprise many cat owners, who will tell you their cat knows when human members of the family are upset and will actively comfort them, as has happened so often to me!