Why Train?

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Cecilia- stand up

What are the benefits of training your cat? Yes, it’s pretty cool to be able to ask your cat to jump over obstacles and through hoops (cat agility!) but training also opens a line of communication between you and your cat. Animal training utilizes principles of psychology to create a common language between the human and animal.

If we know the cat salivates when food is presented (the food elicits an involuntary response in the cat) we can pair this instinctive response with an initially neutral signal- such as a click! (classical conditioning). When we pair the click with the food repeatedly the click is associated with the presentation of food and takes on meaning for the animal. “Oh, when I get a click- I get a treat!” You can use this new form of communication to let your cat know which behaviors you like and want them to keep doing. Your animal will connect the click with their behavior and will choose to engage in those behaviors more frequently (operant conditioning). “I see… they like it when I sit. Let me sit again and see if I get a treat!”

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Cecilia- go to mat & stay

As animals undergo more training, they often learn they will get rewarded for new behaviors and start to display unexpected, novel behaviors. “Lets see if I get a treat for standing on my back legs! Yup!” The cat gets to be creative and find new ways to interact with you and earn rewards.

Sometimes your cat will even “ask” for training sessions. My cat Cecilia (started training when she was 7 years old) has a very specific stance she gets in when she is ready to do a training session. She looks me in the eyes, sits completely upright and lifts her right paw (probably a superstitious behavior) as if to say “I’m ready to earn some treats!”

There are multiple ways training can benefit you and your cat:

  • A common language formed between you and your cat. You can ask your cat to do behaviors instead of forcing them. For example, if you need your cat to leave the room you can ask them to go to their “mat” in the other room, instead of physically picking them up and moving them.
  • Serves as an outlet for excess energy, which could alleviate some behavior problems and keep your cat in shape!
  • Allows the cat to use their brain. The cat makes the choice to engage in behaviors during training sessions. Cats will often display unexpected behaviors- trying something new to earn a reward. This allows your cat to think and problem solve, which may aid their mental health.

Follow the posts on this page to learn how to train your cat! 

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.

Raising the bar: Cat training made simple!

Check out this video oDSC_0027f my cat, Cecilia, learning how to jump over a bar. Training cats (or any animal for that matter) is extremely simple!  I used principles of positive reinforcement to train this behavior. The behavior was trained in approximately 15 short sessions (lasting 5 minutes or less). Below is a list of terms used in the video. Cecilia also knows how to sit, stand on her back legs, follow a target, give me a high-paw (high 5!)… and more in progress! Feel free to ask any questions!

Raising the bar: Teaching a cat to jump over a bar using operant conditioning 

Terms used
Operant conditioning: Learning through consequences (I jump the bar, I get a reward)
Positive reinforcement: Adding something to the environment (positive- in this case food & praise used as reinforcers) to increase a behavior (reinforcement).
Clicker: A conditioned reinforcer (conditioned= classically associated with reinforcers before training).
Hand cue: A conditioned stimulus that Cecilia knows to target.
FR 1: Fixed Ratio 1, for every 1 bar jumping behavior she receives 1 reinforcer
VR 5: Variable Ratio 5, she receives 1 reinforcer an average of every 5 times she performs the behavior (better for maintaining a behavior).