Trick training a cat? Yeah right! Believe it or not, the Maine Coon’s above-average intelligence and playful antics, make it very easy to train to perform fun and amusing tricks. They’re very fast learners and love to show off their skills. In a matter of days you can have your Maine Coon giving you a high five or a feline rendition of “Three Blind Mice” on the piano.
Behavioral scientist Karen Pryor has pioneered the force-free training method known as clicker training. This training method is now used worldwide to train dolphins and wild animals in zoos, as well as domestic pets, such as horses, dogs, birds, cats and even goldfish.
How it Works
Clicker training is a marker-based training method in which the trainer uses a handheld clicker to make a click sound the moment the animal does the right thing. The trainer then instantly offers a treat reward. There’s no coaxing or sweet-talking involved. Simply put, it’s a fun way of teaching your Maine Coon to do tricks for treats. And anyone can do it!
“The click is vital,” says Pryor, author of the book Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats (Sunshine Books, 2001). “It identifies the behavior you plan to reward for the instant it’s happening. Animals really understand because that’s how they learn things in the wild. You’re telling your cat, ‘That’s it! I’ll reward you for exactly that!’ The method re-enforces what Mother Nature has instinctively taught them to do when they hunt for food, and focuses on their natural tendencies to explore, experiment and play,” Pryor says.
“Any cat, unless it has some physical disability, will respond,” Pryor continues. “Naturally, kittens grasp the technique very quickly because it’s almost impossible not to engage them in some kind of learning. But regardless of age, from the cat’s standpoint, it thinks it’s training you to click and give it something it likes. Your cat is thinking what a clever and interesting person you are!”
What You Need
A clicker. A clicker is a small hand-held device with a button that makes a click sound when pressed. These are readily available at pet-supply stores and online. If your cat is deaf, you can use a flashlight to identify the action you plan to reward.
Treats. Choose something your cat thinks is really yummy, such as tiny chinks of diced chicken, cheese or tuna. It must be something soft so it can be eaten quickly. You’ll need about a 1/2 teaspoon of pea-sized treats for the average training session. When rewarding your cat with the treat, place it on a saucer or small plate to keep upholstery and carpeting clean. If you’re worried about weight gain, Pryor suggests substituting treats for 10 to 20% of your cat’s regular meals. Be sure to schedule training sessions before meals when your cat is hungry so it will be more interested in the food rewards.
Targets. Also known as sticks or pointers, targets are used to identify the action that you want to click. If you want a cat to jump onto a chair you will target the chair and when the cat jumps click and capture the action. It’s important that the target is not left lying around because then the cat is likely to ignore it when you want to put it to use. It must be something special so that the cat identifies with the clicking sound and the treat that follows. It’s a training tool and like any tool should be put away when not in use. A target can be any stick-like object, such as a pencil, chopstick or wooden spoon. Later, you can substitute a favorite toy, such as a feathered object on a stick.
Getting Started: Shaping and Capturing Behaviors
Start by teaching your Maine Coon to touch a target (stick) with its nose. Present the target by holding one end of the stick and put the other end near the cat’s face. Most cats will bump their nose to it when they sniff it. As the cat’s nose comes close to the target, capture the behavior by clicking and immediately give a treat. Remember, every single time you click, you must treat.
Pryor suggests practicing your mechanical skills in front of a mirror before you even introduce your cat to a target. To do so, hold the target and the clicker in the same hand. Put the target stick up to the mirror, click when the stick touches the mirror. Instantly move a tiny bit of tuna from one dish to another. Once you’ve established a rhythm and perfected your timing, you’re ready to try out the technique on your Maine Coon.
Initially, your cat won’t understand that these tasty tidbits aren’t random events but that you’re shaping a behavior.
Target. Click. Treat.
Target. Click. Treat.
A total of five clicks and treats is a big training session for a cat that’s new to the idea. So keep training sessions short. Your cat will learn faster this way. Remember to quit while your cat is still interested. When your cat has had enough of all this thinking, it will turn its back on you and wash its face.
“It’s a graceful exit when you’ve swamped it with new information,” Pryor says. “Let your cat set the pace and respect it.
Expanding Your Cat’s Repertoire
Once your Maine Coon responds to a target, you’re ready to expand the routine and teach it to follow a target. Start by holding a target about 6 inches away from your cat. Let the cat approach it and touch it. Click and treat.
Repeat the idea to the left and the right and slowly increase the distance until you’re able to lead the cat back and forth. Once the cat begins following the target, you can start using the target to teach your cat to jump off your lap, run under your leg, jump through an embroidery hoop, and jump from a chair to a table or from one chair to another. The possibilities are endless.
“Cats like a challenge,” Pryor says. “You can make an action like jumping from one chair to another more difficult by moving the chairs farther apart.”
Targeting has its practical uses, too. If your cat is under the bed and won’t come out, try producing the target. A trained cat will respond. Always remember to click and treat! Be sure to hold training sessions in different rooms of your home so your cat will happily perform anywhere.
The Next Step: Teaching Cues
Once your cat has learned several behaviors, the next step is to teach it to do the tricks on command by responding to a signal.
“Cats relate better to gestures and hand signals than they do to verbal cues,” Pryor says. “However, whether you’re using your voice or a certain rap on a hard surface or hand gesture, use the same cue all the time and only use it once. The cat must learn to respond immediately.”
Because of their playful nature and friendly disposition, Maine Coons often invent their own antics. You can capture something cute and charming so keep your clicker and some treats handy at all times.
“You can click anything,” Pryor says. “Wait for actions such as when the cat rolls over and playfully boxes the air with its paws, leaps sideways, or plays with a ball and sends it rolling all over the place. Just keep clicking and treating, capturing the moment like you would on film.”
If you don’t have your clicker handy, you can make a clicking noise with your tongue and mark the behavior that way.
When Pryor’s daughter Gale Pryor brought a Maine Coon kitten named Mehitabel home, she had plans to allow the cat to become the family’s official mouser, but the kitten had her own tricks up her paw.
“She invented a hula dance at dinner time to capture my attention to feed her,” Gale recalls. “One evening soon after we got her, I was preparing dinner and she got up onto a table in the kitchen, stood up on her haunches and raised her forepaws straight up in the air above her head and started a rhythmic movement while side stepping along the edge of the table. It was an attention-seeking tactic to get me to feed her.”
Gale didn’t have a clicker handy, but she knew she had to respond immediately to capture the behavior. “So I opened the silverware drawer and rattled knives instead and put food in her bowl immediately,” Gale says.
As a result, ale says, the rattling of the knives is the clicker for this behavior. Whenever the cat dances, Gale rattles the knives and dinner soon follows. Everyone in the family knows not to feed her unless she’s done the hula. She dances for every meal. Even though it’s now a well-established behavior, we continue to re-enforce all the time.
If you want to get your friends and family to marvel at your magnificent Maine Coon, here are two tricks that are guaranteed to make your cat the center of attention at any party!
Kitty High Five
First train your cat to sit to do this. Wait until your Maine Coon sits on her own accord, then capture the behavior by clicking and treating.
Make sure your cat will sit in any room in the house, then establish a cue so it learns to do it on command. You can use the word “sit” or a hand gesture as a cue.
To teach the high five, wiggle your fingers and move your hand in front of the cat’s paw on the ground. The moment the cat pats your fingers with its paw, click and treat. If your cat is reluctant to patting your hand, Pryor says that you can start by patting the cats paw with your finger — cats will eventually pat you back and then you can take the training from there into the air so that you have the typical high five movement.
When your cat consistently pats your moving fingers, slowly raise your hand off the ground until it’s up in the air at the cat’s shoulder height. When the cat raises its paw, put your hand in the path of the movement and click the instant the paw touches your hand. Next, move your hand slightly so the cat has to aim for your hand with its paw to get clicked. Finally, add the cue “gimme five” when you hold out your hand. Click and treat.
You can also train your Maine Coon to stand up on its hind legs to give you a kitty high five.
Playing “Three Blind Mice” on the Piano
Day One: Prepare about 20 small treats and place an empty plate on the piano bench. Lure your cat to the piano bench, click as it jumps up and put a treat on the plate. If your cat stays on the bench keep clicking and treating.
Next, hold a treat over the keyboard. Click any movement toward the keyboard and any times a paw touches the keys. Place the treat on the plate so your cat must come down to eat and get back up to the keys to get clicked.
Next, wait for your cat to move toward the keys or step on them without any help from you. Click any attempt—even if your cat just looks at the keys.
When your cat’s stepping or pawing at the keys with confidence, click only for strong paw pats. Click any audible plinks and reward with extra food.
Day Two: Repeat the first steps. When your cat can make audible plinks on a regular basis, click and treat every second paw touch to build repeated sounds. To be able to select for the right sounds, you need to teach the cat that it must play at least two or three plinks to get clicked. Then, you can click only the right plinks. It’s called building a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement in order to continue selectively reinforcing specific improvements.
Place small, removable stickers or Post-it notes on the piano keys middle C, D and E. Click only when your cat touches those keys.
Pryor suggests continuing to click for repeated plinks over the next few days and especially for any right to left movement.
When your cat hits the notes E, D and C in that order, it’s playing “Three Blind Mice!”
The Sky’s the Limit
Whatever tricks you have in mind for your Maine Coon, clicker training is all about having fun. It’s also a great way to spend quality time with your cat and enhance your relationship with it.
Find more information about Karen Pryor’s cat-training kit here. The kit includes a copy of her book, a clicker, a pack of treats.