Cat clicker training
We tend to think of cats as being too independent — or maybe too smart — for training. But it is precisely this combination of intelligence and self-reliance that can help make training easier. In fact, given the right direction and motivation, a cat’s understanding of cause and effect can make her highly trainable.

Like their larger relatives in zoos, domestic felines learn best through reward-based training. Treats, petting and play can be used to motivate the feline learner. As with dogs, cats are most commonly trained in one of two ways: lure-based training or clicker training. Both methods rely on rewards to motivate the feline, but the means to reach the desired end differs depending on which type of training you choose.

Here’s a simple overview of lure-based training and clicker training, including the benefits and drawbacks of both.

Lure-Based Training

How it’s done: Lure-based training relies on using an object that is significant to the cat, most often food or a toy, to move the cat into a desired position, such as a sit or down, or onto a certain spot, like a mat or bed. Lure-based training often includes the use of marker signals, like a word or a click, to indicate when the cat does the correct behavior. This marker is followed up with a treat. For instance, when teaching a sit, a word like “good” may be used when the cat’s head follows the lure and her back end starts to bend into what eventually becomes a sitting position.

Benefits: Lure-based training is easy for many pet owners to pick up simply by watching a trainer’s example, and little explanation is needed. Most cats also easily catch on to the concept of following the lure. For a cat who is highly motivated to follow a special treat or toy, such as canned cat food in a spoon or a wand toy, lure-based training can produce a nearly immediate response. For cats who appear to constantly question anything they are asked to do, lure-based training can provide concrete, measurable motivation.

Drawbacks: Teaching the behavior relies primarily on holding the lure in the right place in order to generate the desired response. For example, if the lure is held too high, the cat may stand on his hind legs rather than sit. Some pet owners also have difficulty fading the lure and remain reliant upon a food or toy in the hand to get the cat to do the asked-for behavior or trick. To fade the lure, start by removing the treat from the hand and having the cat follow the hand alone, and then substituting a hand signal or voice cue without any treat at all. Adding a hand signal or verbal cue prior to fading the food lure can make it easier to eliminate the lure. Lure-based training also has the potential to make a cat less creative and more reliant upon her human’s guidance. Finally, lures can be more challenging to use when training more complex tricks, like teaching a cat to fetch or turn off a light.

Clicker Training

How it’s done: A marker signal, most often a clicker, is used to pinpoint the exact moment the cat does a desired behavior. The marker signal is followed with a reward. Behaviors that naturally occur, such as a down, may be reinforced in this way and, over time, put on cue. A more complex behavior can also be shaped, or taught in a series of small steps. In some cases, a target stick may be used with the clicker to get specific movement and positioning — for example, when teaching a cat to roll over. Clicker training is generally more hands-off than lure-based training and encourages animals to think out their actions.

Benefits: The precise timing and careful planning of clicker training enables cats to learn more complicated tricks, like turning off the light switch or fetching a particular toy, by breaking them into small, easily mastered steps. Clicker training can also be helpful with fearful or shy cats, as it does not require close contact between human and feline.

Drawbacks: Some cat owners are reluctant to use a clicker for training because they assume that they will need to carry it around with them all the time. But the clicker is used only for teaching new behavior — once the behavior is learned, the clicker can be replaced with a signal, like a word or gesture. Some cats may be fearful of the clicking noise; in this case, quieter options, like a ballpoint pen, can be used in place of the clicker — or you can skip the click entirely and use a verbal cue, like “good” or “yes,” to mark the desired behavior. Some pet owners use the clicker in ways that are not constructive, such as over-clicking and treating the clicker as a toy, not following up every click with a reward or using the click as a form of punishment for unwanted behavior. Any of these uses decreases the clicker’s value and undermines the training. It is important to use the clicker only to mark desired behavior and to follow the click with an immediate reward, in order to reinforce the behavior.

Lure-based training and clicker training can be used used in combination or separately in training, depending on the goal. Whatever style or combination of styles you chose, reward-based training can lead to an increase in communication and bonding between you and your cat.

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