Clicker training is a positive, humane method of training that’s been used successfully with a wide variety of animal species including marine mammals, primates, dogs and horses (Gillis, et al., 2012; Fjellanger et al., 2002; Williams, et al., 2004). Clicker training involves the use of a specific sound when an animal performs a desired behavior. The “click” sound marks the correct behavior and serves as a bridge between the desired behavior and the animal’s reward. This bridge is extremely helpful in helping trainers clearly and precisely communicate with an animal (Pryor, 2004). Although use of clicker training is common with many species, there has been very little attention given to the possibility of clicker training cats.
Training of shelter dogs has been found to lessen the stress of the shelter environment, increase chances of adoption, and make the dogs’ transition to a permanent home easier (Thorn, et al., 2006). It is suggested that these same benefits might apply to cats. For these reasons, this study was designed to assess the feasibility and impact of clicker training on adoptable shelter cats.
This study was conducted within a non-profit program designed specifically to assess the implementation of a clicker training program for cats residing in a nearby limited admissions cat shelter. The first stage of this study was a pilot conducted between January and March 2016. During this time, cats were temporarily housed at the training center for two weeks and underwent clicker training 2X/day for 5 minutes per training session, 4X/week. The training first focused on target training (teaching the cat to follow a target stick), an important first step in shaping other behaviors. After this step, cats were trained to perform several behaviors including ‘high-five’, spin, sit, ‘shake hands’, and ‘go to a mat.’ A clicker training manual (written by co-presenter Kolus) contained the protocols used for training. All training was conducted by two certified trainers. All cats were admitted to the facility on Fridays and given the weekend to acclimate. Training began on Mondays and was conducted Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Two training sessions (11am and 4PM) were conducted each of the four days. In addition, each cat was petted and/or played with 10 minutes a day.
Reported preliminary results are based on 44 cats that completed training (some cats were removed from training early due to being placed in medical isolation, being adopted, or being unable/unwilling (unmotivated?) to interact with a trainer). All behaviors were assessed on a 5 point scale with 1= Just started teaching this behavior; has a long way to go before fluency; 2 = Learning the behavior well, but still has some problems with it; 3 = Able to ask for and get the behavior, even if not fluent, about 80% of time, 4= Able to ask for and get a fluent behavior about 80% of time or more, and 5 = Able to verbally ask for and get the behavior fluently 80% of time or more (on verbal cue). Many of the cats demonstrated the ability to perform desired behaviors: 88.4% of cats scored at least a 4 for target training indicating fluent ability, 40.7% for ‘high-five’; 28.6% for spinning; 20.8% for sitting, 66.7% for shaking hands; and 33.3% for going to a mat. These results suggest that a significant percentage of cats can be clicker trained in a shelter environment in relatively short periods of training over the course of two weeks.
Given the fact that dog training has been identified as one way to reduce shelter environment stress and potentially increase adoption prospects, these results are encouraging. They suggest that cats may be able to be trained as well, perhaps thereby sharing some of these positive benefits. Shelters may be able to offer similar experiences to cats. Additional data will be gathered to further assess these preliminary results. This data will be analyzed and discussed, along with ways to implement similar training programs at other shelters.