Allison's Book Bag

The Cat Training Series: Clicker Training

Posted on: December 29, 2017

Clicker training has been around for over half century. B.F. Skinner discovered its underlying principles in the 1940’s and used a clicker publicly as a marker with a dog in the 1950’s. Within ten years, dolphin trainers began to use whistles for the same purpose, that of cuing animals with sound to perform desired behaviors. In the 1970s, clicker training gained popularity with pet owners, when animal trainers Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes started giving clicker training seminars to dog owners. After that, in 1998, Alexandra Kurland published Clicker Training for Your Horse. This text led to the publication of training books for other companion animals including cats. What follows are the highlights of my attempts to teach our three cats clicker training, a feat that has perhaps educated me as much or more than it has them.

Day 1: I picked targeting for my first training technique. Targeting is considered a versatile training aid in which animals practice touching a target for a click and a treat. In addition, targeting is also considered the easiest behavior for novice clicker trainers to learn. For these reasons, targeting seemed the ideal place to start. To teach targeting, I used a target stick and canned chicken. Then I followed these steps:

  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats looked at the target stick.
  • Show the cats the target stick.
  • Click and treat the instant my cats touched the target stick.

Two of our cats immediately figured out that looking at and later touching the target stick earned them treats. Our third cat wanted nothing to do with the target; instead she tried to figure out where I had placed the treats, so that she could go straight for the prize.

As for me, I struggled with two challenges. First, trying to retrieve meat with the same hand that I held the clicker slowed my response time. Second, I found it cumbersome trying to avoid dripping chicken juices onto our carpet.

Day 2: Undaunted, I refined my training technique. Instead of using canned meat, I switched to deli meat that I could more easily grab. I also began using my left hand instead of my right to retrieve the meat. Both changes speeded up my delivery of incentives. But now I had a new challenge. Apparently, I’d trained two of my cats so well that they expected treats from my right hand, and they refused to believe that I might use my left hand.

Day 5: After a few days of lackluster clicker training, I decided to consult my husband, who has trained our dog for almost ten years in agility. He asked three questions, all of which caused me to think.

  • What command do you want to use?
  • How do you want the cats to touch the target?
  • What is your end goal?

We decided that I could stick with the command “Touch,” the cats should touch the target with their nose (not their head, cheek, or tail), and the first goal was for them to sit in an assigned spot. If I could achieve this goal, the cats would be less underfoot during meal preparation. Eventually, I could also modify this goal, so that the cats would retreat to their crate. After this goal is achieved, the next will be to send them to a crate in the case of an emergency. Clicker training could someday save their lives!

After our discussion, Andy took on the role of handing out treats. In doing so, we figured out yet another way to refine my training technique. Instead of handing the meat to the cats to reward them, he placed the meat on the target. Now the cats would not just connect the clicker with a treat, but they’d also connect the target with a treat. The cats showed their appreciation with a flawless performance!

Week 2: I moved on to the next step in targeting: changing the position of the target after each success. Each time my cats touched the stick, I clicked and treated. Initially, the higher or lower I moved the target, the more confused were the cats. Rainy even at one point rolled on the ground, as if looking cute would earn her a treat. With practice, I found it helped if I made sure that the cats were watching the stick as I moved it. Interestingly, two of them had no trouble following the stick when I moved it to the left or the right. Our third cat, however, made it clear that she wasn’t going to move far for a reward.

For the rest of week two, I continued to change the position of the target after each success. The cats showed more and more focus, until near the end of the week when I moved our training session to a different time. Normally, we head to the basement right after lunch, but that day I had other commitments, and it was nearly suppertime before we started our session. Big mistake! Cinder’s tail twitched and she persistently meowed, while Rainy rubbed her head against me and purred. Neither of them could concentrate. Not even the juiciest meat could tantalize them. Their minds were firmly fixated on supper! Only Bootsie complied.

Week 3: I moved closer to my end goal, using the target stick to direct the cats to an assigned spot. As with previous attempts, the first attempts had a low success rate. Cinder twirled multiple times before she’d follow the target stick, while Rainy wandered this way and that before she’d follow the target stick. As we continued to practice, they began to dawdle less and moved to their assigned spot more quickly.

In contrast, Bootsie became more reluctant. I was puzzled by her behavior. When I held the target stick in front of her, she’d gladly touch it with her nose and accept her reward. But when I moved the target stick to the left or right, which would require her to move to touch it, she stared at me as if that action would take too much effort. One reason for this might be that I can only reward her with prescription food, due to her food intolerance, and so she may not as highly motivated as the other two cats. On the other hand, if I forget to take the food with me when I leave the room I always find it gone upon my return, so obviously she likes it. Another factor could be her feral background. While she has adjusted to domestic life is many regards, she remains wary of new situations. Maybe the farther away I move the target, the more suspicious she is of trickery.

One of the leaders in clicker training, Karen Pryor, has described clicker training as “a clear form of communication that combined with positive reinforcement is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.” After three weeks of clicker training, I’ve decided to take each cat at their own speed. With Cinder and Rainy, I’m mixing up their training by using the target stick to lure them through obstacles on an agility course, which is not only teaching them obedience but is also rewarding them with fun. As for Bootsie, I’m simply trying to get her to take one or two or three more steps to the left or right each day, with the realization that in doing so I’m building trust. And, ultimately, trust is the foundation for any training routine.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

2 Responses to "The Cat Training Series: Clicker Training"

This is a good step by step instruction. I tried clicker training after taking a class at the shelter, but I’m as inconsistent about doing it as the cat is about responding. Maybe I’ll try again.

The pets and I enjoy spending weekday afternoons in our finished basement. Sometimes we do clicker training, other times agility, and the rest of the time we just goof around. So, I’m not sure we’re terribly consistent either. I’m happy that some of the lessons have stuck. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: