Tag Archives: clicker training

I am a big fan of new behavioral studies that can help cats, and I’m also a big fan of using clicker training with cats. So when I saw a new study, “Clicker training increases exploratory behavior and time spent at the front of the enclosure in shelter cats,” had been published, I was very excited to check it out.

Unfortunately, the paper is a good example of why we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from research and for those of us who do research, why we have to be careful about how we design studies.

Picture by Dilara Goksel Parry

There’s no doubt that shelters are a stressful environment for most cats. Being in a shelter usually means that cats have been removed from their familiar territory and all that is contains (smells, sounds, familiar humans and other animals). There are other animals present in distress, and cats may have to be handled for medical treatment, and may not have the ability to escape fear-provoking stimuli. Previous studies have shown that a hiding space, enrichment, and some types of handling can provide benefits for shelter cats.

The current study intended to determine if clicker training for shelter cats could improve their outcomes by increasing activity and exploratory behaviors, things that might help shelter cats get adopted more quickly. The study included twelve singly-housed cats in an animal shelter, who received 10 minutes of clicker training, 3 times a week for two weeks.

Cats were first trained to make a connection between the clicker sound and a food reinforcement (we call this “charging the clicker”). Next, the trainer made the clicker sound and offered food any time the cat made a movement toward them, essentially shaping the cat to approach the front of their enclosure in exchange for a treat.

The results appear impressive – by the end of two weeks, cats spent more time at the front of the cage, and more time exploring. The training had no effect on whether cats showed more “friendly” behaviors (as rated by the “Human Approach Test,” or HAT, which assesses how cats respond to strange humans – do they approach or sniff an offered hand, or withdraw or show signs of aggression?). This all sounds great!! So where did things go wrong?

The fatal flaw in this study is that there is no control group – meaning a group of cats who did not receive the clicker training but were also tested for improvements in activity, exploration, and friendly behaviors. As someone who spent many years working in an animal shelter, I can attest to the fact that most cats will improve with time in a shelter environment just because they adjust to their new environment. In fact, previous research has shown that cats’ stress levels in novel environments improves significantly in 14 days…the same time frame as that in the clicker training study.

Without a control group, it is NOT POSSIBLE to say that the clicker training contributed anything to the improvements in behavior observed in these cats. It’s a behavioral equivalent of a placebo effect – these cats may have improved significantly with or without clicker training.

Another concern with this study is that the researchers did not control for how long the cats had been in the shelter when the clicker training was started. The range of time the cats had been in the study at the start of clicker training ranged from 2 to 21 days. If you looked at the four cats who improved on HAT scores, they had an average length of stay of 14.5 days when training began, compared to the other eight cats who had been in the shelter an average of 6.25 days when training started, again supporting a strong effect for time in the shelter on the cats’ behavior.

I don’t really like blogging to tear apart a study – doing research is difficult, and when doing research there are often minor flaws or things that if we could go back in time, we would do differently, no doubt. But the flaw in this study as presented is so fatal, that I’m surprised it was published as is (even the title suggests experimental support for the hypothesis that clicker training effects shelter cat behavior).

The sad thing is that this flaw could have easily been fixed just by having a control group of cats who did not receive clicker training, and seeing whether and how much their behavior changed during the same two week period (ideally, matching those cats to the clicker trained cats on how long they had already been in the shelter). If the researchers had done this, we might be playing a whole different ballgame folks.

Because when you do science, you can’t just think about what might prove your idea or hypothesis (“clicker training will increase activity in two weeks”) – you have to think about what would DISPROVE your idea or hypothesis – what are the OTHER possible explanations (“cats will become more active in the shelter in two weeks without clicker training,” “cats will become more active in a shelter in two weeks if they are offered toys to play with” etc.). Especially when it has already been demonstrated that cats improve in a new environment in about two weeks ANYWAY, to not control for this factor is doing the field of cat behavior research a disservice.

There are some classic writings on how to think about these issues when doing science, first of all, John Platt’s “Strong Inference” and Richard Chamberlain’s 1965 paper “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” are every bit as relevant today as they were when published over 50 years ago (and should be required reading for anyone who is “science-ing”). The overarching messages: design your studies to get clean results, consider alternative possible explanations, and try to control for them. This is why including placebos and blinding folks is the gold standard for testing new medical treatments.

Hopefully someone will take the initiative to test the effects of clicker training on cats with these messages in mind in the future, so we can know for sure whether clicker training offers additional benefits for shelter cats above and beyond the effects of just getting comfortable with more time in the shelter.

References

Chamberlin, T. C. (1965). The method of multiple working hypotheses. Science, 754-759.

Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. J. (2015). Effect of interactions with humans on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as contented on arrival. Preventive Veterinary Medicine121(3-4), 288-296.

Grant, R. A., & Warrior, J. R. (2019). Clicker training increases exploratory behaviour and time spent at the front of the enclosure in shelter cats; Implications for welfare and adoption rates. Applied Animal Behaviour Science211, 77-83.

Kessler, M. R., & Turner, D. C. (1997). Stress and adaptation of cats (Felis silvestris catus) housed singly, in pairs and in groups in boarding catteries. Animal Welfare6(3), 243-254.

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science146(3642), 347-353.

Stella, J. L., Croney, C. C., & Buffington, C. T. (2017). Behavior and welfare of domestic cats housed in cages larger than US norm. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science20(3), 296-312.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Do you play with your cat? How about every day? Be honest. I know most of you reading this are pretty lazy about playing with your cats (I can be too). You might even blame it on your cat…”Oh…he doesn't really like to play with toys,” “She liked to play when he was a kitten, but now that she’s older, she prefers to cuddle.” I've heard it all before and I know it’s a lie! Why? Because to cats, play should be practice for predation, and cats are natural-born killers who cannot resist the opportunity to pounce! This doesn't mean that the play is always fun for the human, who may or may not be particularly skilled at eliciting those killer behaviors in their cats. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s look at a recent study examining how play might influence the behavior of cats.

An Owner Survey of Toys, Activities and Behavior Problems in Indoor Cats” was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The study was a survey of 277 veterinary clients in Tennessee who were bringing their cats in for a veterinary visit (coming for anything besides a behavior problem rendered someone eligible to participate). The goal of the study was to examine just how much playtime owners give their cats, and how this might be correlated with behavior problems.

Owners were asked standard questions about their cats (such as if they were spayed/neutered, the cats’ sex and the like). The survey also asked owners if the cats eliminate outside of the litterbox, fight with other cats, and if they bite and scratch people. They were next asked how often and long they play with their cat, and what types of toys/activities they provide for their cats (e.g. balls, mice, stuffed toys, catnip, etc.). Finally, they asked participants if they talk to their veterinarian about any behavior problems their cat might be experiencing.

On the human side of things, all owners stated that they played with their cat at least once a month, with 64% claiming to play at least twice a day. Most owners played with their cat for 5-10 minutes at a time. The majority of people (78%) reported leaving toys out all the time for their cat.

On the cat side, we've got a lot of naughty kitties out there. Sixty-one percent of owners reported at least one undesirable behavior, with many cats displaying aggression toward people (36%), closely followed by urination outside the litterbox (24%) and aggression between cats in the home (21%). Of those owners with “problem children,” only half of them had mentioned the problem to their veterinarian.

Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr

Was playtime correlated with behavior problems? Maybe. The owners who played with their cats for longer periods of time reported fewer behavior problems (on average one behavior problem, compared to the 2.25 behavior problems reported by those who played with their cat for only one minute at a time). Behavior problems were strongly related to the sex of the cat, with male cats being more likely to have reported behavior issues, regardless of neuter status.

I do think we should interpret these results with some caution. First of all, we have a very small sample size of people (less than 10) who reported they only play with their cat for one minute at a time. These people may not be representative of a random sampling of people who don’t play much with their cat, and of course, we don’t know if the decreased play is the cause of the behavior problems, or the result (or because of something else altogether). We also don’t know if those who claimed to play with their cat for longer periods of time were being honest. Perhaps many of them only play for one minute as well, they just didn't feel like admitting it!

We also don’t know if people who bring their cats to the vet regularly are different from pet owners who do not. More than half of all pet cats do not get a yearly exam, due in large part to the fact that many cats are afraid of their cat carrier (a subject for another blog post!). So it’s possible that the cats represented in this survey are also somehow different from your average pet cat, for better or worse.

On behavior problems: it seems like a lot of cats are having them (more than reported in a previous study). Is this because people are making less time for their cats? Are more cats bored and indoors? (For the record, I advocate keeping cats indoors only, but it needs to be a loving, fun and stimulating environment!) They also didn't report whether age correlated with behavior problems, but I wonder if aggression toward humans is more prevalent in younger cats and kittens, with more of a playful/predatory bent, than the more fearful, defensive types of aggression problems seen in some cats.

Most people don’t mention behavior problems to their veterinarian, and while the authors suggest that veterinarians can be a resource for help, (no diss on vets, but…) I think it’s important to remember that most veterinarians do not get much (if any) training in cat behavior. In many veterinary programs, ONE multi-species behavior course is an elective, not a requirement (see here, here and here for examples of veterinary curricula). Many veterinarians admit they know little about behavior, while others may give outdated or just bad behavior advice!

That said, veterinarians are hopefully making progress on this end, and hopefully know of some resources for cat-owners that they can at least point them to (such as veterinary behaviorists, CAABS, the IAABC and Cats International) if they can’t answer a client's behavior-related questions! Because behavior issues are a major reason that cats are surrendered to shelters, it is important to intervene and provide assistance early!

This study reveals some valuable information about pet owners and the type of activities they provide for their cats and I have plenty of thoughts about the findings! This study found owners reporting even less playtime with cats than data from a study in 1997, where owners reported 20-40 minutes of daily play with their cats. Sadly, the current figure is probably not enough to meet most cats’ needs.

Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!
Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!

Furthermore, people need to expand their selection of toys and activities. In the current study, only 39% of owners reported using an interactive (“fishing pole”) toy with their cats. This is a travesty! Only NINE percent had a cat tree, four percent trained their cats to do tricks, and less than one percent provided food puzzles as enrichment for their cats. I’d say those are four “magic bullet” things that all cats owners can do to immediately improve their cats’ lives, and sadly, not many people are doing any of them.

 

Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr
Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr

So for those of you who might be cringing about the kitty care you are providing right now, I’m going to give you a few quick tips to make playtime easier for you and your cat:

Think like prey – get interactive (that means a toy with a stick that you move, not a toy you just toss across the room) toys that resemble birds, bugs and mice. Move them like birds, bugs and mice! Quiver, skitter, hop, but whatever you do, don’t shove the toy in your cat’s face. No self-respecting mouse would do that. Also, don’t feel the need to wildly wave the toy around constantly. This might work for kittens, but older cats need more calculated play…bringing me to my next tip:

Take advantage of your cat’s stalk and rush hunting style. Stalk and rush means that the predator spends a lot of time carefully watching prey before making a very hasty and deadly attack. Cats really like the “pre-pounce” phase – where the toy is barely moving for many seconds. Watch their eyes – are their pupils dilated? Is their butt wiggling? Are their whiskers forward? If yes, you have feline focus!

This short burst style of hunting means that you don’t always need 20 minute play sessions with your cat. Several 5-10 minute sessions are likely just as effective! Just make sure your cat has a little time to calm down from the play before taking the toy away.

Use all of their senses! We are visual, so we tend to think that cats are too. But they want to use their senses of smell, sound and touch too! Try toys scented with catnip, or small amounts of mint, valerian or even cat food. Remember their sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so a little bit will go far. The scent may help them track toys as you move them around.

Move toys against a scratchy surface, like under a paper bag or rug, or hide the toy behind a table leg and gently tap the toy against the leg. The sound will immediately pique your cat’s interest!

Be sure to let the cat catch and touch the toy frequently. They have many sensitive nerve endings and whiskers in their face and paws to help them hunt. These are designed to help them capture prey. This why lazer pointer play can get frustrating; they can never catch the toy.

Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rotate toysa previous study suggested that cats don’t get bored of play – they get bored of the same old toy. So be sure to take some toys away, and put out different ones. Have multiple interactive toys for play sessions. Switch toys if your cat seems to lose interest and see if she is re-engaged!

 

I hope now you feel a little more inclined to pick up that dusty cat dancer that’s been sitting in the back of your closet and give your kitty a little exercise! You may even have fun and create a bonding moment with your cat…and if you’re lucky, you’ll prevent some behavior problems too!

10 Comments

If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal. 

I’ve skated through life without having to do a lot of animal training --- even as someone who studies animals! I grew up with untrained cats; the research lab I worked in as an undergraduate used key-pecking in pigeons to study their behavior (something pigeons basically learn on their own through a process called autoshaping); I currently study food-storing in squirrels --- something they are experts at. I like studying what animals do naturally --- and now I think I know why.

Pigeons being autoshaped to peck a key in an operant chamber.

bloghifiveI have trained my cats to do cute parlor tricks – high-five, sit, and the like. But, most of the important stuff that my cats know, they have figured out on their own, such as using the litterbox (no help from me), and using their scratching post (encouraged with positive reinforcement). But I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE training. I enjoy the parlor tricks, and I think my cats do too, but that’s a low stakes situation. Now I would like to train one of my cats to perform a new behavior – to go through a cat door into a magical box that will prevent my other cat from eating all of her food (more on the Meowspace in a future blog!).

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I thought for my last blog post in 2013, I’d keep things fun! Some people like to make New Year’s Resolutions (I’m not really one of them!), so I thought I’d give those of you who share your home with a cat a few easy suggestions to help increase your cat’s happiness, and enhance your relationship with your feline friend.

1.    Play with your cat with interactive toys DAILY

Interactive play (and I don’t mean throwing a mouse across the room) provides exercise and mental stimulation for your cat, and is a great way to bond (especially if your cat isn’t particularly cuddly).

"I got this."
"I got this."

"I really got this."
"I really got this."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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