Adventures in Clicker Training with Cats
Sit! Click! Treat! Repeat!
It's very interesting to see the different ways each cat responds to clicker training. They know where the clicker is kept and get excited when they see it come out. Having cats who are very food oriented can be a problem - like when Mickey chews fist sized holes in cotton rugs and towels that he thinks may have come into contact with food at some time in the past ten years or so, or steals a package of treats and eats package and all - but it is a blessing if they ever have to be medicated, and it sure makes clicker training a breeze! As for me, I'm really enjoying seeing how fast they catch on and wondering why it took me so long to try this considering all the years I've been working with people who clicker train with dogs.
Of the two black and white cats, Scamper is the one with the lightning blaze over her nose and the "got milk" mustache. She's small, around 7 pounds. She's come a long way from the frightened feral she was 6 years ago, and is now a very affectionate lap cat. She's still very shy and stays under the bed when anyone comes into the house, although she comes out for our neighbor, Sarah. For a while I found it very difficult to get her to go upstairs if I knew we were having company. She would hide under a chair and refuse to come out while I explained that she was going to be much happier upstairs. Then one day she explained to me that if I would just offer a piece of freeze dried chicken she would happily trot up the stairs with me. Confidence has never been a strong point for her except when Sam was around to show her what to do. No surprise that she is somewhat hesitant about doing what I ask her to do with the clicker. She is willing and seems to enjoy herself but when we try something new she looks at me like "Am I doing it right? Do you really want me to do this?"
Cooper has more white on his face and has the regal demeanor befitting the King of Everything. He weighs around 9 pounds and is shaped like a football player, very compact and solid as a rock, more like picking up a puppy than most cats. He's a real people cat and absolutely loves having company. Anyone other than Bill and Judi is considered part of his Fan Club who came just to see him and of course they want him in their lap and want to rub his belly. When there are a dozen or so people for a family party he is in his glory. Cooper will sit by the cupboard and ask for training because he wants the treats and the attention, but he'd just as soon not have to work for it. He does have a heart condition and was quite mellow in his foster home even at less than 2 years old. He has high energy moments, but does a lot of lying low and loves to hang out in the sun on the screened porch. But he sure loves food!
Mickey is the tan and white, and the biggest, weighing around 10 pounds and still slightly on the thin side. Mickey is the basketball player, significantly taller and longer than Scamper and Cooper, and with the longest tail I've seen. He likes to drape himself over my shoulder in a big sideways U shape. I think his spine is made of Silly Putty. He's shy when other people come to the house, but will warm up if it's not a big group. With us he's outgoing and just as sweet and affectionate as he could possibly be. Mickey is full of energy and needs any available outlet for it. He will do absolutely anything I ask him to and do it with enthusiasm as long as a treat is involved. He catches on very quickly and is quite confident. "You want me to do that? Sure! Now what?"
All three cats focus on the treats if they are visible, so I keep a handful out of sight behind my back while they do the task and get clicked, and then bring out the treat. They all caught on to "touch" right away and will touch the target high, low, to their right and, more slowly, to their left. All of them will do "Puppy Up" and sit back on their haunches or stand on their back feet with front feet in the air and touch nose to target.
With all three I can hold out both hands with a treat in one fist and pointing the other index finger, say "Touch", and they will look at both hands, then touch the pointing index finger (without a click) and look to the other hand for the treat. Bill says 30 years ago (our anniversary this year) he never would have believed it.
After "Touch" the next step involves teaching the cat to step on a mat. For this I'm using three placemats of different shapes and colors, with the thought that Someday I might be able to have all three together and have each go to his or her own mat. I can dream, can't I? For training to sit on a mat or any other object - stool, chair, cat tree, etc. - there are two basic methods. "Shaping" rewards the cat for each step toward the desired end. "Luring" entices the cat to the desired end. I'm using something of a combination of the two, rewarding them for the first sniff of the new mat and then trying to get them to step on the mat to get to the Touch target. At first they don't want to step on the mat, but seem to think they should go around it, so I put a treat on the mat and just let them go get it. That lets them know it's okay to step on the mat, and then I can get them to step on it to get to the target.
Cooper was first, and he got a click and treat for going to the mat to check it out, but then needed to be convinced that it was okay to step on the mat. Who knew he would be such a tidy boy? Anyway, he figured that part out, so then we worked on going onto the mat, getting off the mat to get the treat and going back on the mat on command to get the click and off to catch the tossed treat. Sometimes I pick up the mat and put it down again in front of him, other times I leave the mat on the floor and just give the command "mat". This way he comes to understand that "Mat" means getting on the mat and also that just having the mat put on the floor in front of him means he should get on it.
So one day Cooper and I are working on "Mat" and he's doing a good job. He's standing on the mat and I give him his treat. He chews, swallows, and promptly puts his butt down on the mat! So I yell "Sit", click and treat him again, and now Cooper has the Sit command! We repeated that several times in that session. The next session he didn't seem to have any idea what "Sit" meant, but after that he caught on again and will now sit on command with or without the clicker being out of the cupboard. How cool is that?
But maybe even cooler is that Scamper will now sit on command, too. We were ending a clicker session when she happened to sit down and as with Cooper I grabbed the opportunity to give the Sit command, click and treat. At first she could see that I was all excited but didn't understand what she had done that was so marvelous. I worked with her for a little longer and gave the Sit command every time her butt hit the hardwood, and pretty soon she got the idea. We've been able to repeat the routine a number of times, although she usually offers me Puppy Up first. She can't quite believe she gets a treat for something that simple.
So what's the point of all of this anyway? Aside from the hope that it may help me get Scamper and Cooper to a point of peaceful coexistence, it's a fun interactive game for them and me, a mental stimulation and a confidence builder for them, and it makes Bill shake his head and chuckle. Do I want to make them stars on You Tube or enter them in competition? No. I don't. But if that were my goal I can see how it could happen pretty easily. Mickey doesn't sit still very often, so I'll have to watch for my chance towork on Sit with him, and hopefully we'll have that down for next time. After everybody gets real comfy with Sit, we'll go on to Stay, working up from a few seconds to however long I can get away with. I expect that to be a little more challenging!