Clicker Training Builds Confidence

Scamper Elizabeth playingScamper Elizabeth was a timid young feral cat when she came to live with us almost eight years ago. Sam was a great help in building her confidence, and she's come a very long way. She plays well with Mickey, you-chase-me-I-chase-you games, and she's not afraid to cuff him if he plays a little too rough even if he is a whole lot bigger. Cooper, however, has been mostly a detriment to her confidence. The new product we tried out didn't do much of anything to help them get along. She runs and hides like prey, and he does what active boy cats do with prey. Chase, capture, sink the teeth in the neck. Although she defends herself pretty well when this happens, the next time she sees him she's more afraid of him than she was before. She's a "bush dweller", running under the bed or under a chair or under whatever she can fit under, and likely cornering herself. If she would run up as high as she could, like a "tree dweller", he might be less likely to catch her or even make the effort to come after her. Somehow telling her this doesn't seem to have much effect, even though she does clearly understand a lot of human language.

Scamper really enjoys her nightly clicker training sessions. She's taught me to vary the routine - otherwise she runs through her tricks in the order she thinks I'm going to ask for them whether or not I get around to giving the command. She'll respond to commands for Touch, Sit, Puppy up, Up (on chairs, etc.), Off, and most recently we've been working on Spin. She'll Sit-and-Wait for a count of 40! Swishes her tail the whole time. She'll go to the top of the 72 inch cat tree, one level at a time, and back down the same way.

Mickie and Cooper in the cat treeThere are two tall cat trees in our house, one upstairs and one down. Cooper and Mickey both like the high perches and have figured out how to either share or toss each other out of the top shelf. Mickey is especially fond of the downstairs tree since he can gallop from the screened porch to the living room and launch his 13 pounds at the tree, Fortunately it's pretty stable in spite of being so tall and doesn't tip over with his attacks. He likes to look down on his world from the top shelf. Occasionally Scamper will climb up with him and settle on the next shelf, sometimes spending the night there. This is a huge change for her. Also in the bedroom there's now a cat bed in a high spot that's easy to get to, and she's spending a good part of her upstairs days up there. Being up where she can see the world and anything that may be coming at her is ever so much better than hiding under the bed.

The other sign of new confidence in Scamper is the TV toy - you know the one. It's a circular piece of fabric with an arm with a "tail" on it that moves around and back and forth under the fabric when it's turned on. Order now and get two for the price of one! When we first got this contraption several months ago the boys thought it was fun and Scamper was definitely interested, but from a distance, thanks. They all got bored with it and it was put away for a while. When I brought it out again a couple weeks ago, timid Miss Scamper attacked it with such a vengeance that even Mickey sat back and watched with a surprised look on his face. She hasn't learned to turn it on herself, but I won't be surprised if she does. She knows enough to sniff the button, and sometimes attacks so enthusiastically that she accidentally turns it of!

She's also more forward in terms of asking for things, giving head butts to both of us, and looking for rubs or a lap, and climbing all over Bill. I do attribute this new confidence to the clicker training. Not only is it a game she plays interactively with me, but she can do something I've asked her to do, get immediate feedback that she's done what I want and done it right, and get a treat for it! Wow! This is fun! She's as proud of her accomplishment as any kid would be.

I can't say that this new confidence carries over to dealing with Cooper yet. I'm not asking them for anything other than being a few inches apart for their nighttime treat at this point. Every time we get close to a breakthrough we have a setback, and I'm tired of being discouraged, so I've lowered my expectations. Which, in the greater scheme of things, may be exactly what they need. Time will tell.

MickieMickey loves clicker training. Interactive play is his very most favorite thing, and getting a treat for it is just the best. Scamper and Cooper are still kept separated, one upstairs and one down, and Mickey's figured out that he can get double click and treat time if he can get in with each of them. He likes what he considers active things like Touch, Puppy up, Up on things, Off, and he loves Spin. Sit, however, seems like a waste of time to him. This is a non-action in his estimation. He just doesn't see the sense in it, but he will do it if it's the only way to get that treat. He's the biggest by far, very active, very playful and very affectionate. If he can't get anyone to play, he'll settle for a lap. Scamper would like to share the lap with him, but he takes up quite a bit of real estate when he decides to stretch out.

Cooper relaxingCooper was kind of my inspiration for clicker training since he always offered what I call Puppy up if he wanted something or to present his head for a rub. Cooper has a fire personality and has bursts of energy, but for the most part isn't very active. He wants to play when he wants to play, not when someone else does. We always start a session with a Touch command, and if he just turns and walks in the other direction, it's pretty clear he doesn't want to play just now, and the King of Everything has spoken. When he's in the mood, he will go through all the routines the others do, including Spin, but I don't think he finds it as much fun as they do. His favorite games involve being on the bed and having toys tossed in the air or wand toys sent soaring over the bed so he can leap for them but come down on something soft. Clicker training is a closer interaction with me, and when he's in the mood it does get him to focus on me and what I want him to do, which should be helpful if I ever decide to let him and Scamper loose in the same room again.

Mickie and Cooper on the cat treeAs of this writing it's early November and in a few more weeks it will be Christmas tree time in our house again. We have only unbreakable things within kitty-reach around the bottom of the tree, and the branches are usually too tight and the needles too sharp for the cats to consider climbing into the tree itself. These are specific considerations when we're choosing a tree. I've had cats who liked to sleep under the tree, one who would bring her toys to help decorate, one who would always take just one thing off the tree. And one who thought it was a good idea to chew on the lights. I caught her at it and had to remove the bottom string of lights with the tree all decorated. Overall they've all been pretty good over all the years, but none of them ever totally ignore it. This will be Mickey's third Christmas, and for the last two I did not allow him to stay downstairs near the tree at night. Mickey likes to eat things generally not considered edible, which is how he ended up in emergency surgery a few months ago, having about a yard of 1/4 inch wide ribbon removed from his intestine. I am extremely careful about things that could cause harm, and where he found that ribbon I'll never know, but find it he did and eat it he did. This year we'll try clicker training with him for not doing things like taking baubles off the tree 'or trying to eat the decorations. I'm still not sure I'll trust him downstairs with the tree without supervision. We'll see how it goes.

Scamper, Cooper and Mickey wish everyone Happy Holidays and a peaceful New Year, with lots of yummy treats and new toys and squirrels outside the windows and ear rubs and laps with quilts on them.

Adventures in Clicker Training for Cats

 next page