Wednesday 20 April 2011

Cat Clicker Training

I find the concepts behind cat clicker training hard to understand and the explanations of how it works unclear. Maybe it is me being a bit thick but I would like to see if I can put an explanation about this training aid into clear simple language.

Cat clicker training is part of training cats by positive reinforcement or giving the cat a reward for behavior that we consider good. Let's be clear though. From the cat's standpoint the behavior is neither good nor bad. It is plain natural, but we like cats to do certain things.

Whereas we train ourselves to do things for monetary reward cats don't understand money. The classic reward for a cat is food - their favorite food or treat. This will motivate a cat in a positive way.

If a cat does something that pleases us we reward the cat with a treat. If we do this enough times the cat will do the same thing so that he or she gets the treat. Positive reinforcement happens naturally all the time. Often mutual training is going on. This is my example.

My three legged cat likes to sit on top of the sofa. The position suits the fact that he has three legs. When he is hungry he calls out. On one occasion I picked him off the sofa and took him to a fresh bowl of food. I did this to avoid the need for him to get down from the sofa which is hard for a cat with three legs. It also gets the job done quickly and stops him screaming at me. I did this a few times. Now he knows that if he screams at me from the top of the sofa he will get carried to food. I inadvertently trained him to do that through positive reinforcement. And he trained me in the same way to lift him down. My reward was to avoid him asking me again and again.

Where does the clicker come into this? This is the bit I find hard to understand. The clicker is a device that you can buy on the Internet and which emits a nice clean sharp but not unpleasant sound. It is based on the toy crickets you used to be able to buy.

You click immediately after the cat has done what you want her to do and then immediately after that you give her the food treat. The click and the treat become linked, each being a part of the reward (you are "pairing" the click and treat). The sound of the clicker allows the cat to more precisely and more promptly identify the action with reward. It is a form of quick and clear communication that is more efficient that simply giving a treat or verbally praising which, because they are delivered relatively slowly, may not be connected to the desired action of the cat.

The clicker makes that certain connection between behavior and reward and it is also connected to the food treat. It is a secondary reinforcer and it creates a bridge between the action (called the "response") and the reward (the "reinforcement").

Once the cat has learned that a response (the desired action) leads to the reinforcer, you can attach words to the clicker to allow you to make commands that are acted upon by the cat - the actions are a response to the command. You can also use the cat's learned awareness of the clicker to train her to do other responses. Actions by us such as tapping with a stick can be used rather than our commands but I guess the objective is to attach a command to the clicker. In the early part of the cat clicker training the food treat is attached to the sound of the clicker.

See the above video YouTube.

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