Adventures in Clicker Training with Cats
Featuring Scamper, Cooper and Mickey Crazypants
and Judi Wishart, Cat Lady
Many people are familiar with clicker training with dogs. When the dogs perform the task requested, they get a click and a choice treat. The click lets them know when they've done the exact task requested, and eventually a voice command is added in and the clicker phased out. Works great with dogs, but ... training cats? Am I out of my mind? Well, possibly, but I firmly believe cats can be trained, with lots of patience. For many years I've had cats that know they're not supposed to be on the table or the counters, stove, etc. Doesn't mean they aren't on there when I'm not looking, of course, but they know. They come when they're called, come upstairs or downstairs when I ask them to, and some of them sit quietly by my chair at dinnertime until, after my last bite, they get a treat. It helps to have treat-oriented cats!
I'm basing this experiment on an excellent guide called "Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement", by Marilyn Krieger. She is a Certified Cat-Behavior Consultant who writes columns for several publications (website at thecatcoach.com) as well as doing individual behavior consults. The book is well organized and very readable. It takes the reader through clicker training specifically for cats, step by step, each step providing a basis for the next. The instructions are quite detailed as timing is a crucial part of clicker training. Problems like inappropriate scratching, litter box issues and aggression (including cat to cat aggression) are addressed, as well as simple sit and stay commands and teaching tricks.
The subjects of this experiment are Scamper Elizabeth (princess of quite a lot), age 7; Gary "Coop" Cooper (king of everything), age 3; and Mickey Crazypants (court jester), age 1. Scamper has been with Bill and me for 6 years and was prominently featured in "Sam's Story". Cooper came to us a couple months after we lost our gentleman Sam, who treated Scamper like a princess and taught her how to behave. Cooper is far more rambunctious than Sam and not so respectful. We did all the standard introduction things with Scamper and Cooper, but they did not take a liking to each other. In fact, they require at least a locked screen door between them, and at times even that is not enough. On the occasions when they get past the screen door, they become a writhing, screaming, slashing mass of black and white fur. That's our biggest family issue. Because of this, Cooper wasn't getting enough attention in spite of our best efforts, so about six months later we got Mickey to help keep him company. Most experts would consider this a mistake, but it has worked out well for us. The boys get along well and like to play rough together. Scamper accepted Mickey starting with 5 minutes at a time, and now they will chase each other, curl up together and groom each other. Scamper, the queen of head butts, is trying very hard to teach Mickey head butting, but so far he doesn't quite get it.
Mickey is the most enthusiastic eater I've ever had. I have to put him in a small dog crate before I bring his plate into the room or he grabs it out of my hands. Yes, I know, I'm the human here, but he's long and lean with the reach and jump of a basketball player. With clicker training I hope to get him to sit and stay instead of using the crate. If that's the most I accomplish with this experiment I'll be happy, but if it can help establish peaceful coexistence between Scamper and Cooper, Bill and I will be ecstatic!
I started with each cat alone, with the hope for eventual "group lessons". The first lesson is Touch, in which the cat is to touch his or her nose to a target, in my case a light green chopstick with a black spot on the top end. I've also acquired a "click stick" which is a clicker attached to a telescoping stick with a small ball target on the end. Cooper got the idea quickly, then tested it by brushing his cheek on the target and when that didn't produce the treat, he went back to touching with his nose. Scamper did pretty much the same thing. Mickey caught on quickly and was able to transfer "touch" from the chopstick to my finger in the first session. The challenge with him is getting the click in as soon as he touches his nose to the target and before he opens his mouth and puts his teeth on it! Which is one of the things he needs to learn. I spent just a few minutes with each cat the first few times. A session shouldn't last long enough for the cat to get bored - although I don't think any of these cats would ever get bored as long as there's food! Coming up with tasty treats that are small enough for them to have quite a few in one session is a bit of a challenge, but some dry foods have very tiny pieces. We'll stay with Touch for a while before moving on to the next step.
The book strongly recommends training at the same time every day. With my schedule that simply isn't going to happen. I suspect that a lot of people shy away from clicker training and, in fact, any training, with dogs as well as cats, because they are told they must keep at it each and every day for the same amount of time at the same time every day, which makes it sound like a lot of work that will be for nothing if they skip a day or two. I'm here to tell you that's not true. I had three sessions with each cat, then didn't have time for any clicker training for about five days in a row. At 11:30 p.m. on day 5 I took the clicker off the shelf and Scamper went reaching her nose for it. We spent about 5 minutes, and she consistently touched her nose to the target at her eye level, at a foot in the air and off to the side. I think she gets it! Of course, consistency and repetition are important and so is spending the time. The more time I spend the stronger results I'm going to get. But the fact that I'm not able to be 100 consistent doesn't mean I won't get any results and shouldn't bother to try.
This is a new fun game for Scamper, Cooper, Mickey and me and we're going to continue to treat it as such. I'm looking forward to seeing what I can get these kitties to do. I'll report on our progress as we go along. Meanwhile we're all enjoying warmer weather, tiny flowers, and birds returning, and looking forward to opening up the screened porch!