PetSmart training expert Jodie Havens, CPDT-KSA, shares how to teach a cat to follow commands using the clicker method.

By Allison Maze Vancura
Updated January 31, 2019

Clicker training is a popular dog training technique, but many people don't realize it's also one of the best ways to train a cat. Cats can quickly form a connection between a command and click, especially when rewarded with a tasty treat! With continuous practice and positive reinforcement of the desired trick, command, or behavior, you'll be able to effectively train and bond with your feline companion in no time. Here's how to get started.

What are the benefits of clicker training a cat?

Clicker training can help cats feel secure and strengthens the bond with their pet parents because it helps spend more time together in an engaging and rewarding way. It also helps owners focus on what their cat is doing right rather than focusing on what they do wrong. Owners are able recognize good behavior and reinforce it to get it to continue. Any kind or reward-based training, including clicker training, builds confidence in the animal and provides a great outlet for mental stimulation which many cats do not get on a daily basis, especially indoor-only cats.

Why might someone want to try the clicker training method?

Clicker training gives pet parents a way to truly communicate with their cats. Rather than verbally encouraging or scolding, which a cat can interpret as general attention regardless of whether it’s good or bad, using the clicker shows the cat which actions they’ll be rewarded for and ultimately learn to repeat in the future. Clickers have been proven to be more effective than other training methods. The sound of the click is processed by the cat quicker than a spoken word is and the click is consistent, so it is easy for the cat to understand. Sometimes cats tune our voices out (we talk a lot!) so the click can be more effective.

Is there an optimal age to start clicker training a cat?

Kittens can be easier because they are a clean slate. They have energy and are usually eager to participate in training sessions. Older cats can be clicker trained but sessions must be shorter, and the value of the rewards must be greater. They may have built in bad habits that can get in the way need more motivation. I find starting with older cats is best when you “catch” good behaviors. Meaning, have the clicker and treats available and when you see the cat do something you like without being prompted, click and reward.

What are the best rewards for clicker training?

Break or cut up treats to make extremely small pieces to prevent filling them up or over-feeding. (Authority has an assortment of grain-free moist cat treats made with natural ingredients that are perfect for rewarding during clicker training.) Some cats will work for their kibble or even wet food, so clicker training during meal times is a great option, especially for cats with allergies or food sensitivities. I like using a spoon to give small bits of wet food as a reward.

What are the easiest commands or tricks to start with?

I like to combine clicker training with target training when working with cats. Target training consists of a target stick (you can make one using a wooden dowel with a small ball on the end) and the cat is taught to touch the end of the target stick with their nose. You would start by presenting the target directly in front of the cat’s nose. When they lean forward to touch it or sniff it, you would click your clicker, remove the target behind your back and reward. Continue until the cat makes the connection and understands that touching the target earns the click and reward. Once the connection is made, you would slowly start moving the target further away from the cat, so they have to move to touch it.

Once they are consistently touching the target, you can begin teaching cues like Sit, High Five, Jump, Come When Called, etc. For Sit, start with the target at the cat’s nose and slowly lift up over the cat’s head. Typically, as they follow the target with their nose it makes the cat look up which normally causes them to sit. Once they sit, click and reward. Depending on the cat, it often takes between five and 20 repetitions for them to make the connection.

How long should a clicker training session last?

It’s recommended that training sessions be kept short and sweet. I like keeping sessions with cats under 1 minute or even just a few seconds, depending on the cat. Multiple sessions throughout the day are beneficial. Many cats disengage quickly, so try to end sessions before they start to disengage.

I like to have owners make training part of their everyday life and so small sessions multiple times per day is best. I also like to recommend training during commercials when you are watching TV.

Is it best to focus on one command at a time?

I like to work on a few tricks at a time, but it again depends on the cat. Teaching too many can be confusing, so I like to stick with 2 or 3 at a time. This gives variety to both owner and cat as well as helps prevent frustration on a certain trick if it isn’t going well.

How do I phase out the clicker and reward when my cat seems to fully grasp a command?

I like to terminate clicking cold turkey once the behavior is exactly how I want it. I then replace the click with praise and I continue to reward every time. If the cat picks up on the pattern no clicker equals no treats, they may stop working once the clicker is discontinued. So, once the behavior is what I want, I stop clicking, use verbal praise and treat. Then I will begin to vary the reward.

Owners must know what their cats like, as a reward is only a reward if the cats truly likes it. So, one time I may treat, then the next I may pet (if they like it), then I may treat twice in a row then next reward with a playtime with their favorite toy. It is important not to create patterns- rewards should vary intermittently. Rewards should continue to be used randomly throughout the cat’s life to ensure the behavior continues.


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