From click to trick
The tricks described in this book will be taught with the help of clicker training – a fascinating technique to make your cat understand what you expect from her. She will be motivated to carry out other actions by means of the clicker training.
The most important tool – the clicker
The most important training tool that you need is the clicker. It is the kind of cricket toy which makes a sharp, short sound when you press down on it. These days you can easily get a clicker either from a pet shop or on the Internet. They come in different forms and colours and – this aspect is important for your cat – in different volume levels. The quietest clicker that I know of is the so-called I-click, which was developed by the clicker pioneer Karen Pryor.
You can also employ other sounds as an alternative to the clicker, for example the clicking sound of a biro pen. However, whichever clicker you choose to use needs to fulfil two criteria: it should always sound the same, and it must not be a sound that the cat hears constantly outside the training sessions during her day-to-day experiences. Unless you click your tongue to call your cat or tell her that food is ready (which is something a lot of people do), I would recommend the tongue-clicking sound. Clicking with the tongue is well-suited as a clicking sound and offers two great advantages: you will have your hand free because you don't have to hold the clicker, and you can also click your tongue spontaneously outside training sessions.
It is time for humans – the clicker game
It is time to proceed with the first practical exercise. However, in this first exercise you don't use the clicker on your cat. Instead, try it out with another person. Invite your partner, a friend or your child to play the clicking game – you can promise them a lot of fun without investing too much!
The clicker game works as follows: imagine an action that your game partner should carry out. Start with something simple: to sit on a specific chair; to touch the window handle; to touch the light switch. Do not tell your game partner what you expect from him/her, but ask them instead to figure out by themselves what you want them to do by trying out a number of different things. Use the clicker as a helpful aid. Explain to your partner that the click means: 'Great, you are on the right track' and that you will not speak to him/her in any other way, nor are you allowed to give them additional hints. You will point them towards the right goal solely by means of the clicker.
Touching the light switch, for example, could proceed as follows: your partner looks or moves in the direction of the light switch – click! He/she looks in another direction – no click. He/she looks roughly towards the light switch again – click! He/she moves a leg to step in the correct direction – click! Another step – click! However, if he/she moves past the light switch and through the door – no click. He/she asks: 'Shouldn't I go this way?' You smile in a gentle manner, don't say a word and wait for the next opportunity to click: he/she turns around – click! If he/she now walks past the light switch in the other direction –no click! He/she turns around again – click! He/she is now limited to the space near the door frame and touches it with his/her hand – click! He/she touches the door frame again at the height of the light switch – click! If he/she touches the doorframe much higher than the light switch – no click! He/she touches the doorframe again at the same height as the light switch – click! He/she moves his/her hand in the direction of the light switch – click! If he/she presses down the light switch – click and verbal confirmation: 'Great! That's exactly what I wanted!'
This sounds very easy but it requires a number of things from the trainer. To begin with you need to think in detail about what result you want to see at the end of the exercise. You should envisage in your mind which signs your game partner could offer on the way to the ultimate goal. That could mean a first step in the direction of the target object, but as a rule you will probably have to start with an earlier sign: a look at or a slight leaning forwards in the right direction. Unless you have defined these small steps for yourself in advance, you will automatically start pondering over them during the game. 'Should I click this action now? One step is good, of course, but it wasn't completely in the right direction. Hmm, maybe I should have already clicked a moment ago, when he/she looked in that direction ...'. While all these thoughts go around in your head, your game partner is not rewarded with a click. That isn't a very nice feeling, as in the first place your game partner does not get the expected confirmation that his/her action was right and secondly he/she will feel slightly helpless, a feeling which can restrict further activities and attempts. It is clear that a high level of clarity and the greatest degree of attention are needed in order that you don't miss even the slightest attempts and movements.
This ensures that your game partner will find the game easier and will experience a greater sense of motivation, if he/she is rewarded with a click as a result of an action on his/her part. In order for that to work, the clicker needs to be used at the exact moment of the action. For example, if you want your partner to walk several steps forward, you always need to click at the exact moment when he/she lifts a leg to step forward. If you are slightly late and use the clicker when your partner has placed his/her foot back on the ground, he/she will hesitate and stop, because you are signalling to him/her that he/she is supposed to have both legs firmly on the ground and should not step forwards any further.
Your game partner will be a marvellous indicator of your ability to use the clicker correctly. To begin with he/she will probably frequently complain, 'What do you want me to do now?' or 'I don't understand what you want me to do ...'. You should make use of these complaints to analyse which things present difficulties for your game partner. The better you become, the less frequently these moments will occur, and your partner will perform certain behavioural patterns during the exercise with increasing speed and with greater enjoyment.
You should definitely swap places as well. You will experience what it feels like if the clicker isn't used at the precise moment of your action or is used infrequently, and feel how great it is when one click is followed closely by another and all your actions are confirmed in each case through the 'Correct!' click.
If possible, practise with a number of different people in order to become competent with various characters – every person and every cat has slightly different behavioural strategies which will become apparent in the clicker situation. Think of differing tasks and slowly increase their degree of difficulty. Have the last five of your clicker games been fluent, fun and successful? Did your game partners ask for more? If that is the case you can start practising with your cat. However, we need to make sure in advance that your cat understands what the click sound means.
The meaning of the click – a change from a simple sound to a great promise
At the moment, your cat hasn't got a clue. She doesn't know that she will soon experience a regular daily fun-filled work-out to liven up her boring day-to-day routine, and at this moment the click sound has absolutely no meaning for your cat. If she hears a click, she will probably look up for a moment to determine what kind of sound it is and will then continue to do what she was doing beforehand anyway.
We change that by associating the click with something very rewarding for the cat – or to be precise, with a titbit.
Step One: Conditioning your cat to understand the meaning of the click
Depending on the appetite of your cat, prepare between five and eight small treats. Take them in one hand and the clicker in the other and go and sit with your cat.
Press the clicker once and immediately give your cat a titbit. The precise order in which you do this is very important; first use the clicker, then give your cat the titbit. Wait for a moment and then click again and immediately give her another titbit.
The pause between the click sound and giving the cat a titbit should be less than a second. Continue this exercise until your cat has eaten up all the prepared titbits. Please don't expect anything spectacular. Your cat will be happy about the titbits, but at this stage she doesn't have to do anything to get them. In this way she learns very quickly that the click sound announces a titbit.
This learning process is called classical conditioning. From now on, the click sound is no longer a neutral, unimportant noise for your cat but instead announces the appearance of a titbit and thus gains a positive meaning – 'delicious!'
If your cat is still asking for more at this stage, you can start teaching the first trick immediately.
The effect of the clicking sound rises with the quality of the titbit rewards. Your cat alone decides which titbits are of high quality, namely fantastically delicious ones! Is there anything your cat would do just about anything for? This feed is exactly the right titbit to use during trick training with the clicker.
Small titbits are sufficient – your cat shouldn't become replete too soon, but should enjoy the nice taste and want more. A further advantage of small titbits is that the cat won't have to chew too long and instead is ready for the next step of the training sooner.
Some cats are very difficult to entice with any type of food as a treat. A few suggestions are listed opposite:
Dry food: the pieces need to be as small as possible; they may need to be broken into bits. Food specifically manufactured for kittens may also be suitable
Sticks of cat treats (cut up into many small crumbs)
Different types of cat titbits
Raw or cooked meat cut into small pieces (try out different types of meat, except pork)
Malt or vitamin paste
Portions of yoghurt/cream/sour cream to lick from a spoon
Your cat's favourite tinned meat to lick from a spoon
Cheese cubes (try out a variety of types)
A small sip of home-cooked chicken broth
The selection of possible titbits is very large. Anything is allowed if your cat likes it and it isn't dangerous for her (for example, damaging or poisonous). And of course the main idea is: the healthier the better!
If you and your cat decide that fresh or cooked meat is the right thing for both of you, you can cut the meat into portions for every training session and freeze each portion separately. Simply defrost it for the next day and cut it into cubes shortly before starting the session.
Step Two: The click sound means 'Correct behaviour!'
Your cat has learned that the click sound always heralds something tasty. It will therefore be delighted if the click is sounded as often as possible. As soon as your cat realises that she can influence you using the clicker and receive a treat with the way she behaves, she will try to repeat this action precisely. If you click as soon as she places her paw onto a small blanket, and immediately give her a reward, your cat will realise that it is worth repeating the action 'Place paw on blanket'. It doesn't matter if your cat performs the trick or the first step towards a trick by pure chance. The click and subsequent reward tells her: 'You have done this correctly; therefore you will now get a reward.' It usually takes a few repetitions until the cat understands precisely how she has managed to make you use the clicker – and from then on she will try to get the click and reward (referred to as 'C & R' from now on) through deliberate behaviour.
This learning process is called operative conditioning or instrumental conditioning. Clicker training uses two variations of this type of learning process. If your cat performs an action and you don't react with the expected click, this behaviour is not rewarding for the cat, but instead frustrating. The cat will soon show this behaviour less frequently and possibly not at all. If, on the other hand, she learns that certain behaviour has positive effects in the form of C & R, she will begin to show this behaviour more frequently. Her behaviour is encouraged in a positive manner. It is this effect which we will utilise during clicker training. You should aim to help your cat achieve as many positive moments and experiences of success as possible during the trick training session.
The precise sequence is the deciding factor, not only in the case of classical conditioning but also in that of operative conditioning. The cat can only learn new tricks during clicker training if the click sounds at the precise moment the cat performs the required action; the reward should be given immediately afterwards.
It requires a great deal of concentration, good observational powers and fast reactions to click at the precise moment of the performed action. You have at most half a second to act. If the clicker is used at a later moment, the cat will relate it to her subsequent behaviour and you will have a very confused cat on your hands.
Think back to your clicker game with humans. They do not need classical conditioning to understand the click sound as you can explain the meaning of the click to them in words and the success created by using the clicker during a game acting situation is usually a reward in itself for the human game partner. Therefore, you begin immediately with the operative conditioning; your game partner acts, turns his/her head, makes a step, touches an object and you signal and reward the behaviour positively at the exact same moment as the corresponding action of your partner, thereby motivating him/her to repeat the action or keep trying in order to act correctly.CHAPTER 2
Is everything well planned? Preparing for clicker training
Before starting to train your cat for the first trick, you need to make a number of practical preparations in order to ensure that the training session will be pleasant, exciting and rewarding for your cat.
Knowing what you want – the training goal
It is an elementary rule that you make a clear decision regarding the aim of the training unit before starting the training session. Consider which steps your cat could present you with on the way to achieving this goal. Don't hesitate to write down the goal and any steps you can think of that will lead the way to achieving it. After the training session, check which of those steps your cat actually took and which ones you didn't expect but rewarded with a click. Also, take note of the length of the training session and the number of clicks – if you know how many titbits you had at the beginning of the training session, simply deduct the ones you still have in your hand to arrive at the number. By doing this you create a small clicker diary. It will help you uncover possible difficulties during the training sessions and react to these. In this way you will observe systematically how your cat reacts during trick training, which talents she displays, what she and what you find difficult to do and what you need to observe during the training with your cat.
Where and when – training place and time
Where do you intend to do the training sessions? Will you have a quiet environment at the chosen time? You need to make absolutely sure that no children or partners will suddenly burst in during a training session. Other cats that live in the house should not be in the same room to begin with (if that presents you with any difficulties have a look at 'Trick training with several cats' here?->).