A Clicker For Your Cat


July, 2001
A conversation with the legnedary trainer Karen Pryor on training cats.

Can you imagine your cat sitting on command, playing fetch, rolling over or making its way through, around and over various obstacles called an agility course?

“It’s easy to train a cat,” cheers behavioral biolgist Karen Pryor, author of “Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats,” (Sunshine Books, Waltham, MA; 2001; $12.95).

The logical follow-up questions is, why would you bother training a cat in the first place? Dogs get trained to learn how to behave when they’re out in the real word. Cats generally don’t go out on a leash, and take walks. “Oh, with some cats, you can do that too,” she insists. “The clicker is amazing.”

She’s talking about the kind of little toy clickers once available at dime stores, and still available at some pharmacies, hardware stores and, of course, at www.clickertraining.com. It’s these clickers paired with treats that she employs as a training too.

Pryor is glad an increasing number of people are keeping their cats indoors. “It’s much safer,” she says. “Cars, diseases and other animals are real hazards.” The problem is that the vast majority of indoor cats suffer terminal boredom. Some cats take their anxieties out on the drapes or on themselves (behavior problems like compulsively licking themselves), but most just vegetate, transforming into overweight couch potatoes. They eat, and if you’re lucky, they use the litter box. That’s all.

“I’m not suggesting these owners love their cats any less, but they never discover the full potential of what a cat can be,” she says. “Or the full extent of what your relationship with your cat can be.”

Pryor, who lives in Watertown, MA, was an esteemed dolphin trainer in the early 1980’s. She served a presidential appointment as a Federal Commissioner of the U. S. Marine Mammal Commission from 1984 through 1987.

In 1985, she authored “Don’t Shoot the Dog (Bantam Books, New York, NY, $ ). This book is still in print, and its remains a philosophical training bible. Pryor pointed out you can’t put a leash and collar around a dolphin and yank it around to get your way. So, in the book she asked, why should we be putting a leash and collar around dogs and yanking them around? Pryor began a new way to train. She asserted the most humane and effective way to train any animal is more or less the same, whether it’s a dolphin or a dog.

A whistle is used as what’s called a marker signal for dolphins, and she started to use toy clickers for that same purpose for dogs. No corrections, no yanking or jerking, no punishment is ever required. Instead dogs are rewarded when they do something right. She maintains clickers are more clear and consistent for dogs to “get” than the human voice. The animal hears a click, and instantly realizes he or she did something right.

While clicker training is still not the most prevalent way to train dogs, Pryor’s influence on other trainers remains enormous. Her methods are now being used to clicker train wild animals in zoos. Meanwhile, other books, hundreds of articles – many in scientific journals – and appearances at veterinary conferences and training seminars followed and continue to this day; Pryor’s voice has certainly contributed to soften the harsh methods still predominant among some dog trainers.

So, why is Pryor now bothering with training cats? “I think many behaviorists are agreeing that indoor cats will be healthier with more stimulation. And I mean physically healthier, less stress and more exercise. But you aren’t going to succeed trying to train a cat by force with a collar and leash. The clicker game is perfect for cats because they learn they have some control over when you click the clicker. And as we all know, cats are control freaks.”

For example, Pryor’s own one-year old cat, named Mimi is trained to go on a step stool to wait for her meal. Pryor doesn’t like a cat rubbing against and between her legs and yowling a demand “feed me.” So, she training Mimi to sit and politely wait for her dinner. One day, Mimi spontaneously ran to the step stool, and put her paws over the top – kind of like a circus animal look. “It was so cute, and I had the clicker nearby, so I clicked.”

Pryor believes clicker trained cats are indeed more clever, they’ve learned how to learn. She’s also sure they’re less bored, more interested in life than brain dead couch potato cats, and they’re less likely to suffer from obesity (which can lead to other medical problems). Pryor, who is a scientist herself, concedes her theories about the healthy affects of clicker training cats are yet to be proven scientifically. But she doesn’t waffle on her confidence to her approach. “The Internet is wonderful because I’ve learned Mimi isn’t the only cat who is better off for being clicker trained,” she says. “I get responses from all over the world. If nothing else, clicker trained cats have more fun in life.”

Here’s how to clicker train your cat to give a ‘high-five,” so you can cheer your favorite sports team on with your feline friend.

· You’ll require one cat and a clicker. If you have more than one cat, work with one kitty at a time by secluding yourself and that cat in a room. A clicker can be purchased at some drug, hardware or toy stores or online at www.clickertraining.com (or phone 800-472-5425) where you can order an entire packet, which includes the book “Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats,” two clickers, an instructional guide and treats.

· Pair the click with a great tasting tidbit like cheese, baby food, salmon, tuna or chicken. “My cat prefers chicken,” say Pryor. “Learn what really most interests your cat.” Click, then promptly offer the treat. The treat can be dropped on the ground (but that makes for a messy floor or tuna on the carpet), you can let the cat nibble from the tuna or baby food can, or best to place a tidbit on a spoon or a little dish. Make sure you offer the cat a pea-size portion or less. Quality matters, not quantity. It’s best to train at dinner time. If you leave food out for your cat all the time, pick it up at least a few hours before training starts.

· Keep training sessions short. It’s best to stop before your cat loses interest.

· Once the cat catches on that clicking means a treat, wait patiently for your kitty to move. Click and offer a treat as she lifts a paw. Now, click and treat each time she directs her paw up – this is what Pryor calls shaping the behavior. You’ll inch your way to success, and eventually kitty will be offering a high-five. It will take several repetitions for your cat to ‘get it.’

Remember, each individual cat learns at a different rate, just as people learn at different speeds.