Cat Clicker Training

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as published in the Coloradoan in September 2012

On more than one occasion I have heard people say that cats can’t learn. While that is absolutely untrue, the more interesting question is why do so many people think so? The answer lies in how we typically attempt to train dogs, with a lot of leash pulling and collar tugging. While dogs don’t appreciate that, most dogs don’t have the violent reaction to that type treatment that cats do. We need to find a “hands off” approach to teaching all of our animals that allows them to be fully engaged in the learning process instead of being worried about being tugged this way and that. We can accomplish this through marker based training.

The first thing we need to find is something that motivates our cats. For each cat, this may be different.  Some cats find playing with the feather toy rewarding and have learned “come” in a hurry because it was effectively paired with feather toy playtime. Many cats have a tasty treat they enjoy. Range far and wide on this one, since no feline palate is the same! Sometimes cats enjoy petting enough that it can be used as a reward. Whatever the reward is, we need to know they like it and want more.

Once we have a reward they enjoy, we can pair the reward with a sound that means it will be coming. This is a process of making a consistent sound (a click, a whistle or a squeaker from a toy works well) and then delivering the reward within a half-second. It is important that the marker be predictive that food is coming so your cat associates the marker with the reason they are being rewarded.

Next we need to teach them how they can earn reward.  It’s best to start with a behavior they already offer or are likely to perform in the presence of food, and work towards having it be offered reliably on cue.  Cats tend to excel at paw behaviors like high five, high ten, shake or wave.  This capitalizes on their exploration of the world with their paws and is easy for them to do.  Start with marking movement with their paws by following closely with a click. You can help them by doing anything that may encourage them to do the paw behavior, but click and treat every time.  Repeat this until you see the light bulb come on and they start performing the behavior purposefully.  It becomes a game for them of trying to keep your attention to make you click instead of you trying to keep them corralled for a training session.

Once they understand what behavior is being marked and rewarded, your cat will offer that behavior more often and you can pair a word or a cue with it.  The word cue should be said just prior to their offering the behavior, then the click and treat should come after.  Congratulations!  You have communicated with your cat and you now have a positive training relationship.


Dr. Jennie Willis teaches classes in animal behavior at Colorado State University and regularly consults with owners about their pet’s problem behaviors.  For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit

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