Last updated September 14th, 2020
Clicker training your cat is a wonderful form of cat enrichment, providing mental stimulation as well as a way to help you understand your cat better.
As a cat owner you’ve probably said it many times “No, Mr. Floofles, get off the counter now!” Mr. Floofles looks at you indignantly, as if it was the worst insult to his sensitive feline dignity, and proceeds to nonchalantly lick his paw.
The kitchen is the place where everything is happening, the cats get fed in the kitchen, it’s where the humans eat, it has the fridge storing all sorts of delicious human and cat food and it’s where we spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning. So of course, for our cats, the kitchen is the place to be! But what cats love even more than kitchens, are the countertops! We can’t really blame them. If I were a cat I would want to be counter surfing too.
But how do we keep them away from this interesting yet forbidden territory?
By creating a more desirable social space not too far away from the forbidden territory. Create a section of the kitchen that’s exclusively theirs, where they can still observe and participate in the excitement that is the kitchen, without being an annoyance.
Cats are too often labeled as “jerks” but it’s just a miscommunication between two species who are not speaking the same language. If you want your countertops back, it’s time to offer your cats an alternative space without banishing them from the kitchen, which is, after all, the main social space where all members of the household, human and feline, gather in a positive happy environment.
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Why I started clicker training our cats
Many years ago I bought my very first clicker that came with a book with instructions on how to clicker train your cat. I never used it on my two older cats. Why? Well, they were just so well behaved I didn’t feel the need to train them to do anything. They were not afraid of the carrier, they scratched on appropriate surfaces, never counter surfed, and walked on leashes like they were born to do it!
Then we adopted a few younger cats.
Life. Changed. Dramatically.
Bah! the youngsters of today!
These furry delinquent boys were out of control! And it didn’t help that my husband was the enabler of all enablers! He even had a ‘landing pad’ for one cat to hop onto which was where I would be cutting vegetables! I had to take matters into my clicker hands when George tried to land onto the counter from the top of the fridge sending dishes crashing to the floor! I decided this was the perfect reason to start using that clicker I bought many years ago and get the cats working for treats!
How to get started with clicker training your cat
Allocate a training station
First of all, clear your counter of anything that is appealing to your cats, such as human or cat food. If you keep the treat jar stored on the counter, store it in a cupboard! Don’t give a reason for your cat to be on the counter. We made shelves in the kitchen especially for the cats and we have trained them to perch on these ‘stations’ when we are doing our cooking.
There is a section of the kitchen island that’s an allocated cat zone where the cats have access to extra water bowls. (There are water bowls everywhere in this house, we’re obsessed with cat hydration!) This is a space that leads onto their training platforms on the other side of the kitchen which is where the training happens every night. We have a few floating shelves and another IKEA storage shelf that we use as a treat station.
You can use anything from a horizontal cardboard scratcher, a cat bed or any other piece of cat furniture for your cat’s training station. The important thing is that your cat feels confident and happy in this allocated space. Whatever you use, keep it in the kitchen, especially for this training exercise. #keepitinthekitchen
A great tool to have in your arsenal is a deterrent such as a motion-activated sprayer by Petsafe. Leave this device to tell your cat “no!” without you having to intervene and getting on your cat’s bad side. Of course, this is not the solution, but will work in conjunction with the clicker training. That’s when all the fun begins!
Enroll your ideal students
This is a consideration for multi-cat households. The ideal cat for clicker training is the most outgoing cat that is usually the CMM (Chief Mischief Maker) in the house. You know, the cat whose expertise is knocking glasses off tables! These cats are usually bursting with energy and desperately need an outlet to express their innate hunting behaviors. CMM Baggins was way more energetic than any cat I’ve had in a long time and I could see that both he and his brother Ollie would benefit immensely from clicker training.
Find the treat your cat cannot resist
Your cat has to be food motivated. Some cats are not food motivated but will do anything for toys or catnip! Use whatever your cat loves. We try not to overfeed our cats on the nights we have clicker training, so I keep one-third of their food portion for clicker training class. My cats have become so accustomed to the routine that they are already in position on their stations, waiting patiently like diligent students after tea time.
Start clicking your way to high fives!
Start by getting your cat accustomed to the ‘marker’ sound made by the clicker. At your chosen training station wait for your cat to be relaxed and alert. Click once and immediately offer a treat. Do this a few times to allow your cat to make the positive connection between the clicker sound and the treat that follows.
Once you think he has connected the dots you can start to observe for the desired behavior and then click and give a treat. For instance, if your goal is to get your cat to sit on the ‘station’ or scratching pad or shelf, you would wait for this behavior and reward it with a click and treat. The key is patience, and to click and treat only for each desired behavior and ignore all others. Resist the urge to try and mix it up by rewarding a different behavior just because whatever your cat just did was cute. Start with one desired behavior at a time to avoid confusing your cat. I first started with sit and then the cats advanced on to ‘high five’.
Soon your cat learns that each time she performs a certain behavior she gets a treat. Success! And according to your cat, she’s probably thinking:
“Training my human to give me treats is so easy”Scout the tortie
Another thing to keep in mind is never to force a training session. I always wait for my cats to be alert and curious because this is when your cat is most receptive to connecting with you and more willing to learn. So if your cat is in snooze mode or is distracted by a bird in a window, wrap it up and try later. The goal is training through positive reinforcement and anything forced bears a negative association for your cat.
Watch the video below showing how I trained my multicat crew to experience life beyond the countertops!
Training multiple cats is doable
To be honest, when I started clicker training, it hadn’t dawned upon me that training a clowder of cats together might be problematic. I had no method at all and I didn’t realize the implications of being a multicat household. I just started with one willing participant and took it from there.
“What if hearing the clicker multiple times while ‘waiting in line’ for their treat confuses them?”
By the time I gave this some thought, some months later, the brothers Ollie and Baggie had already graduated on to high fives.
Sly Pie, Mr. Jack, and Charlie took longer than the others to figure out the click and treat reward. But as I observed Sly Pie trying to fathom it all, I realized he was just watching and observing. He only did the “sit” for treats and then would patiently watch the others until the next round.
One evening, he had a lightbulb moment, when he reticently raised his little white paw for a high five. Success! I was almost in tears of joy singing and doing a happy dance while the cats waited on their platforms looking at me like I had gone mad! Sly Pie had learned to mimic his housemates’ actions as they high-fived their way to treats. It wasn’t long after that, that Charlie and Mr. Jack got the hang of it too. It also took persistence and patience on my part, but it was so worth it.
They’re all a bunch of copycats!
Through these clicker training exercises, I learned that cats are really copycats. Cat behaviorists call this ‘copycat’ behavior observational learning, which happens when a cat observes the behavior of the other cats in their clan and then mimics this new behavior. Just when I thought Charlie, Sly Pie, and Mr. Jack were not interested in clicker training, they were actually observing from the sidelines and taking notes. I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as I have at least one cat that learns the behavior very well, the others should soon follow and that training them together in one room should not pose too much of an obstacle.
Some cats learn faster than others
The key to clicker training is patience and observation of your cats’ reactions and quirks. We always joke that Ollie has kitty ADHD because he always gets distracted by the slightest thing and will leave his food to go flit off into the catio because he spotted a squirrel on the fence! To our surprise, Ollie is my star student. Perhaps he just needed something to focus on and clicker training is right up his alley!
Use your fast learner cat (Like Ollie) to kickstart the training to get the momentum going and unwittingly demonstrate their new skills for the other cats to mimic.
A closer connection with your cat
Clicker training increases the bond between you and your cats because of the nature of the whole exercise. Through clicker training, you establish a heightened sense of awareness about how your cat communicates with you, their little quirks and idiosyncrasies. In turn, your cat reaps the rewards of mental stimulation and enrichment by learning new tricks and getting so much attention from their human!
We soon established a nightly routine of clicker training at the cats’ own kitchen stations. Cooking is no longer interrupted by a clowder of begging or counter-surfing cats. If there’s no reward or benefit to them, the undesirable behavior stops.
Clicker training can be used in a myriad of other ways to encourage positive behavior such as climbing into a carrier, driving in a car, preventing your cat from bolting out the door and our favorite, training your cat to use a scratching post. Clicker training is also a great way to teach your high-energy cat to be a team player without breaking his spirit!
If you’re into going on adventures with your cats, Kitty Cat Chronicles demonstrates how clicker training can be extremely useful in teaching your cats behaviors such as “come” on command in emergency situations when on outdoor kitty expeditions.
Below is a video we did last year in which the bros Ollie and Chief Mischief Maker Baggie showcase their contagious enthusiasm for learning new tricks. Just another Caturday night clicker training pawty!
Have you tried any type of rewards-based training with your cat? Chirp us a line in the comments below!
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Disclaimer: I am not an animal behaviorist and I am also learning along the way. The information in this post is based on my own experience clicker training cats as well as many years of experience living with cats. Please always consult your veterinarian on health matters concerning your cats and/or seek the advice of a certified animal behaviorist.