By Paula Garber and Francine Miller
In clicker training, primary reinforcers are things that are instinctively or inherently rewarding to a cat. Reinforcers for cats should be given in small amounts and frequently to maintain learning momentum.
For cats who are food motivated, use high-value food or treats for clicker training. Many cats like foods with a high animal protein content, like cooked or freeze-dried meat or fish. Other foods to try include canned tuna, deli meat, meat-based baby food (make sure it doesn’t contain onions), and liver paste made by Kong. If a cat loves his regular food, you can use that as a reinforcer. One way to discover high-value food reinforcers for a cat is by using food puzzles. Food puzzles will reveal what food or treats a cat will work for, and they also teach cats that certain behaviors can have rewarding consequences.
When using food as a reinforcer, it is best to feed the cat meals on a schedule instead of free feeding. Cats need to be fed multiple small meals throughout the day—feeding five small meals is ideal, but three meals should be the absolute minimum. Plan training sessions around the cat’s regular meal times when you know he is hungry. If the cat likes his food well enough to work for it, you can feed part of his regular meal during training. If using other food reinforcers, reduce the amount of food in the cat’s regular diet to prevent over-feeding.
Cats eat more slowly than dogs, so food reinforcers should be small so they can be eaten quickly. The size of a small pea or about half the size of the nail on your pinky finger is a good guideline to follow. Also keep in mind that cats can eat soft foods faster than hard foods, so if you are using kibble or a hard treat, break each piece into smaller pieces for training.
Some cats will not take food directly from your fingers, so try using a spoon, a tongue depressor, or a syringe for canned food, baby food, or other treats with a pasty texture. You can also deliver treats on a small plate on the floor in front of the cat.
Another type of reinforcement many cats enjoy is play. Because play mimics hunting behavior, opportunities to play can be especially rewarding for predators like cats. Reinforce with short bursts of energetic play. Wand-type toys work well for this purpose because they can be moved around quickly to closely resemble the enticing movements prey, and they provide distance between your hands and the cat’s teeth and claws, reducing your risk of being scratched or bitten. Using some toys only for training purposes will increase their novelty, and thus the cat’s motivation, during training.
For cats who are closely bonded with the person training them, affection in the form of petting, scratching, or massaging can be reinforcing. Most cats prefer brief bouts of touching on areas of their body where scent glands are located—the cheeks, the top of the head, and the chin. Brushing may be used as a reinforcer for cats who enjoy being groomed. Some cats like gentle strokes of the brush on their face or rubbing their face on the brush as it is held still. A couple of strokes with a brush down a cat’s back may also be used, if the cat enjoys it. If a cat is easily overstimulated by physical touch or grooming, choose other reinforcers to keep training sessions focused.
It may take some time and experimentation to discover the most effective reinforcers for an individual cat. Once you find several that work, it can be helpful to keep a list of them in order of highest value to lowest value. Then, with each training session, use the reinforcer that is most effective depending on how hungry and engaged the cat is. This helps prevent habituation and increase motivation. And be sure to use some reinforcers only during training sessions to increase their value.
Social contact, simply being in your presence, making eye contact, or having your attention, can be reinforcing for some cats. You can help these cats be more engaged during training by withholding social contact for a short period before the sessions.
The secondary reinforcer is the sound of the clicker or another unique sound. Not all clickers are created equal! Some clickers are louder than others, and some cats are afraid of the sound. Try wrapping the clicker in a sock to muffle the sound, or use a different sound. Some alternative sounds include the button on the lid from a jar of baby food, a ballpoint pen (just make sure you only use ballpoint pens for training to avoid confusing the cat), a mini-stapler, and a dog whistle. You can also use a verbal sound like “yes!” Another option, of course, is to desensitize the cat to the sound of the clicker.
If you are training more than one cat at the same time, use the same secondary reinforcer—there is no need to have a separate one for each cat. Simply focus your attention and the clicks toward the cat you are working with. The cats will quickly figure out how the game works.
Taken from the article Clicker Training for Cats, first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp. 16-23.
About the Authors
Paula Garber holds a master’s in education and is a certified animal training and enrichment professional and certified feline training and behavior specialist. She is also certified in low-stress handling, and pet CPR and first aid, and is pursuing a diploma in feline behavior science and technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. Based in Ossining, New York, she owns and operates LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions, is currently chairwoman of PPG’s Cat Committee and is a supporting member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also serves on the Cat Protection Council of Westchester in her community.
Francine Miller is an applied animal behavior counselor and associate certified dog behavior consultant (IAABC certified associate) who has 13 years experience treating dogs and cats with behavior problems. She currently offers house calls for behavior consultations throughout San Diego County, California under the business name, Call Ms Behaving, and overnight pet sitting in the area around Carlsbad, California where she resides. She is also the vice chairwoman of the PPG Cat Committee.