Why Clicker Train Cats?

CLICK is a non-profit program in Colorado designed to increase shelter cat adoptions and elevate the status of cats. The program fosters cats to clicker train them to perform fun and useful behaviors, such as target, high-five, willingly accept nail trims, and go into a carrier. The program also helps cats that require other behavior modification to learn to accept handling or become less fearful around people in the shelter setting. All its methods are based on positive reinforcement. Through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, I became acquainted with Cheryl Kolus, Behavior and Training Manager at CLICK. She kindly consented to answering questions about training cats.

ALLISON: What inspired you to start clicker learning training for cats?

CHERYL: The name of the non-profit I work for is Clicker Learning Institute for Cats and Kittens (CLICK). I did not start it; it was founded by David Lerner, a wealthy retired businessman who wanted to help increase shelter cat adoptions and show the public what cats are capable of by clicker training them. We work very closely with a local cat shelter and we use their cats for clicker training. We bring up to 10 cats at a time to our facility, which is right next door to the shelter. We train the cats for two weeks and then they return to the shelter. We are conducting research on clicker training shelter cats.

ALLISON: Why did you pick cats as your first pet? And for training?

CHERYL: Actually, goldfish and gerbils were my first pets, growing up! I wasn’t allowed anything else, although I begged my parents for a dog. When I moved out on my own, I lived in a place that didn’t allow pets, but I got two cats because they were “hideable”. (I certainly wouldn’t recommend that to anyone now!) These two cats, Peanut and Ernie, were absolutely amazing and adorable and fun, and I fell in love with not only them but cats in general.

I first learned about clicker training almost two decades ago from reading Alexandra Kurland’s book, Clicker Training for your Horse. It was then that I played around with just some simple targeting with Peanut and Ernie. Ernie passed away shortly after, unfortunately, but Peanut went on to learn some tricks and was even featured in a clicker training DVD before she passed away in 2011.

ALLISON: What have you learned from working with cats at CLICK?

CHERYL: Don’t underestimate the power of your own demeanor and approach when working with cats. In other words, you only have one chance to make a first impression, so make it work for you and the cat! When approaching a cat, giving him/her your full attention, talking softly, not leaning over him or staring at him directly, and offering a finger or fist for him to sniff first can go a long way to making that cat comfortable with you. I’ve seen so many people, both in shelters and veterinary clinics, that reach in a cage for a cat and are not even paying attention to the cat, and maybe are even turning away to yell across the room to a coworker — this can easily create a fearful cat and then you’ve set up your next interactions to be unsuccessful.

In shelters, there are five things I find that can really help many shy/fearful cats develop more confidence: a predictable daily routine; one-on-one daily social interaction with a calm, gentle person; a quiet space; the same few caregivers day in and day out; and time. These things can be hard to implement in some shelters, but if you’re creative, you can at least provide some level of most or all of these elements.

ALLISON: What mistakes did you make when you first started at CLICK?

CHERYL: It was a new endeavor for all of us. I wrote up a training protocols manual that suggests ways to train a cat to do 12 different behaviors, but we only have the cats for two weeks at a time, and they only get a total of 75 min. training during that time, so we’re certainly not going to teach them 12 behaviors!

ALLISON: What is a funny memory?

CHERYL: I have a video of my elderly kitty, Peanut, doing hydrotherapy in my bathtub. The video was used in a clicker training DVD about cats. I was watching the DVD with Peanut, whom I was pretty sure was deaf at this point, but she apparently heard herself meowing on the DVD, and she suddenly looked up and wouldn’t stop staring at the TV.

ALLISON: What is an embarrassing moment?

CHERYL: When my beautiful, sweet, supposedly well-trained dog, Jax, jumped up and stole a muffin right from my hand at a crowded pet fair/fundraiser. (-:

ALLISON: If I visited CLICK, what would I expect to see?

CHERYL: A shelter-like setting, but quieter and with generally happier cats because they get so much one-on-one attention.

ALLISON: How did you make a connection with local organizations to clicker train cats?

CHERYL: I had been a long-time volunteer with the local cat rescue, and although I’m a veterinarian, my main interest was behavior and they were aware of that. When the executive director was approached by David (CLICK’s founder), she put him in touch with me. With everyone’s help, we got click off the ground.

ALLISON: Why should cat owners train their cat?

CHERYL: Really, the question should be, “Why wouldn’t you train your cat?” We are inviting this animal into our homes to live with our families and we expect them to know how to do that. But they are, first and foremost, animals, and so they have their own unique behaviors. For all of us to live happily and in harmony, they need to be taught (in a patient and kind manner) the appropriate ways to interact with humans. Clicker training can be extremely helpful for that. In addition, training is just plain fun, will strengthen the bond between owner and cat, provide great enrichment for the cat, and owners can impress their friends with their cat’s tricks. Cats can be so much more than just couch potatoes!

ALLISON: What advice would you give to someone just starting to train their cat?

CHERYL: Be a keen observer. Watch your cat and see how he/she reacts to various environments, noises, etc. See what behaviors he/she offers naturally (e.g., if you have a “paw-y” cat, it might be easy to teach a high-five, wave, and shake hands!). Find a quiet, calm place to start training and experiment with various reinforcers to find what motivates your cat. Also learn as much as you can about cat body language and behavior in general. You will be fascinated!

If you’re interested in clicker training your own cat, please check out videos from CLICK to get your started. You might also invest in Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pyror, which I’ll eventually review here at LAA Pet Talk. And if you’d like to read more about clicker training can help shelter cats, check read CLICK’s recently published (Sept. 2017) peer-reviewed research paper about clicker training shelter cats or read a summary about it by Companion Animal Psychology.

Cheryl Kolus received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from Colorado State University in 2012. She was a small animal practitioner until she left general practice to start her own veterinary behavior consulting business. She completed one year of a “non-conforming” behavior residency before becoming involved with a new non-profit, the Clicker Learning Institute for Cats and Kittens (CLICK), where she is now the Behavior and Training Manager. In early 2015, she completed the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Course and is a Certified Training Partner. She is an active member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and president of the Larimer County Veterinary Medical Association. Cheryl lives with one cat and one husband. Her dog lives on in her heart.