Clicker Training with Mama Cottrell

Mama Cottrel sniffed the target stick and waited expectantly for a play session. Nothing happened, which puzzled her. She tried touching the target stick with her paw. Instantly she heard a click and then her favorite wand toy appeared. She rolled over onto her back and batted at the feather as it swished above her. When the toy disappeared, she waited for the target stick to reappear because she knew touching it was the key to more playtime. She sniffed the target stick, then touched it with her paw. The latter earned her play time, and soon every time the target stick appeared she touched it with her paw.

Every time her trainer visited, they repeated this game. But then after a few days, the trainer placed the target stick in her hand. This was new, but Mama went along with the change, and started touching the hand that held the clicker stick. This went on for a while, until there was another change, one that left Mama uncertain again. Her trainer started holding out her hand without the target stick. Mama glanced around the room for the target stick. Not finding it, she stared at her trainer, then slowly extended her paw to touch her trainer’s hand. And was rewarded with playtime!

This past winter, I took a five-week course called Feline Behavior Solutions which was offered by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. In the first two weeks, I tweaked my clicker training skills and applied them to an untrained cat named Mama Cottrell. She’s a resident cat at Cotner Pet Care and you can read more about my training sessions with her here and here. In the third week, our instructor Katenna Jones overviewed cat behavior. She also explained the short- and long-term benefits of clicker training in the context of behavior modification. In this article, I’ll focus on why you should click train your cat.

I’ll start with the short-term benefits of clicker training. It should come as no surprise that one benefit is having fun. Whether you’re adding variety to your cat’s day or teaching your cat party tricks, training will add entertainment to both of your lives. At the same time, training can also create a more sociable cat, reduce its boredom when you aren’t giving it attention or stress that your cat feels in the face of change, and further develop the bond between you and your cat. As you can see then, training isn’t simply about fun and games.

How about the long-term benefits of clicker training? It can be used to manage moods. For example, it can calm a high-spirited cat and liven up a sedentary cat. It can also be used to manage behavior by establishing foundational skills. In concrete terms, training can reduce some pretty serious issues such as peeing outside the little box, inappropriate scratching, and aggression. For example, our instructor explained that if you teach cats the skill of going to a station, you’ll then be able to redirect them in cases of aggression. Alternatively, you could teach them to go to a litter box instead of peeing outside it, or go to a scratching post instead of ravaging your furniture. She also explained that if you teach cats to sit up or do a high-five, you could help bolster the confidence of fearful and/or anxious cats, resulting in well-adjusted cats that are less submissive and more social. The foundational behaviors of sit-up and high-five can also reduce aggression, because cats are rewarded for keeping their claws withdrawn.

Our instructor then elaborated on these examples. First, she broke the behaviors into steps. To get an idea of how to do that, I encourage you to read my article (TCH), which details the basic training principles to keep a cat off the counter.

Second, my instructor shared some case studies from her own practice. In one instance, a cat was attacking his sister because he wanted to play. Unfortunately, she didn’t view the attacks in the same way, and so no one was having any fun. Our instructor taught the cat to recognize a target stick so that she could lure him away from his sister, and eventually to do a recall where the owner (or another cat) could play with him in a separate space. In another case, a client’s mom had Parkinson’s. The cat was attacking the mom whenever she visited. Our instructor taught the cat to follow a target and even to allow for the target to bounce because the mom couldn’t control her tremors. Then she put the target in the hands of the mom. Originally, the cat had felt uncomfortable with the mom, but now the cat began to like the mom because she was the only one who trained the cat.

To wrap up this article, I’ll revisit my training with Mama Cottrell. For week three of our course, we were required to choose one behavior that could be trained through targeting and then discuss its benefits. I decided to teach high-five because, because, this “party trick” might encourage patrons to interact with her more often. My other reason for teaching high-five is that our instructor encouraged students to begin with a behavior that seemed to come most natural to the cats we were training. In my early interactions with Mama, she often extended her paws to me, and so teaching her to high-five seemed like a relatively easy behavior to capture.

For my assignment, I posted two videos to show our progress. The first video showed me just working on getting Mama to touch the marker with her paw, while the second video showed me asking Mama to instead touch my hand. Even though the videos show progress, they also showed room for improvement. This made me eager to practice fluency in precision, the results of which I’ll cover in my fourth and final article about training a vet clinic cat.

Need help with cat behavior? I offer cat behavior consultations, training in obedience and agility, and support for basic care and enrichment. Email me at allisontalkspets@gmail.com or message me at Allison Helps Cats.

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