The Power of R+: Clicker Training and Teaching Recall

Updated: Mar 8


 

What is “R+” and why would you want to do that with your cat?


R+ stands for “positive reinforcement” and refers to an animal training method based on rewards for correct behaviors, as opposed to corrections/punishment for incorrect behaviors. Dogs have traditionally been trained through a combination of both. With cats, however, R+ is the only effective method. Using punishment (of whatever kind) with a cat might get you the desired result in that instance, but most likely the negative consequences of it will end up outweighing whatever little you might gain with it in the short term. Most importantly, it will likely damage the bond between you and your cat, eradicate trust, and make it ultimately near-impossible to effectively teach your cat anything positive at all.

On the contrary, R+ training can help to strengthen the bond and trust between you and your cat. This is not simply about teaching your cat to do tricks but it’s also something that can help make your day-to-day life with your cat more harmonious, and it is certainly useful if you have an adventurecat. It will help you and your cat to understand each other better and become more “in tune”, it’s a great way to provide your cat with some daily stimulus and enrichment (especially indoors), it can help enhance your cat’s overall confidence, and it simply gets you and your cat to have some fun together.


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How and where to learn all about clicker training and positive reinforcement:


Percy loves watching Cat School tutorials!

The vast majority of what I know about clicker training cats and how to use positive reinforcement, I have learned through Cat School. If you don’t already know it, I highly recommend you check out all the amazing free Cat School video tutorials on YouTube and Instagram! And if you want to get into cat training in earnest, then consider paying the USD 25 for the monthly membership for their online platform, where you will find a wealth of courses that will teach you everything step by step, AND you get direct access to Julie (a professional animal behaviorist; creator of Cat School) and her incredibly helpful personal advice!

- Disclaimer: I’m in no way sponsored or rewarded for promoting Cat School. I am just genuinely happy to have this resource and can’t thank Julie enough for all the direct and indirect help and advice I already got from her!


And if you’re like me and end up realizing just how incredible and effective all this R+ training stuff is once you know how to do it properly and just can’t get enough of it... then here is another (not-sponsored) recommendation:

Tromplo is also an online training platform. However, instead of a monthly membership, you pay for each 6-week course that you decide to take. It’s a lot more expensive than Cat School but it’s also a lot more intense and more technical. You can join courses either as an auditor (for ½ the price) or as one of a limited number of premium students who get regular feedback from the course instructor on their homework training videos. Most of the content is tailored towards dogs, but there are plenty of courses that are great to take with your cat as well! (– And hopefully, the more cats start taking their classes, the more content they will end up creating for cats too! 😸)

Percy and I love it! (But definitely start with Cat School first!)


Finally, KittyCatGo Trailblazers monthly challenge for March will be on the theme of Clicker Training! Trailblazers is a membership group for adventurecats, which provides you with monthly challenges, tasks, and activities that you can post about on their platform and share and discuss with other participants. (It’s a USD 5 monthly membership, which starts after a 7-day free trial.)

- Disclaimer: This one, I am affiliated with, and I will likely get some kind of little credit for this, but I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t genuinely like it! #KittyCatGoPartner


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Words of Wisdom: The things I’ve learned through my training with Percy:

  • Training a cat isn’t simply about teaching your cat to do things. First and foremost, it’s a process that is teaching YOU how to communicate with your cat in the most effective way and how to motivate them to happily do the things that you would like your cat to do (/not to do).

  • The key to success in your training is keeping your cat always happy and motivated during your sessions! Your cat’s level of enjoyment is more important than the level of “progress” that you make during each individual training session. Why? – Because the more your cat enjoys their training, the more often your cat will be happy to participate in training sessions, meaning you’ll be making a lot of progress, even if it’s based on baby steps. You may be able to “push” your cat beyond their enjoyment in a training session and might get results that seem like progress. But most likely, it will mean your cat will just refuse to participate or get quickly fed up in your next session.

  • Give your cat a choice! Always give your cat the option to say “no” to training. If they give you any signs that they don’t feel like doing what you want them to (e.g., walking away, lying down, etc.), then you can either try another exercise, try to make things easier, or simply leave it for the time being. Your cat will be a happier and more eager participant if they know (/think) it’s been their own choice to train or not – which, in turn, will most likely make them choose to train more often.

  • Always end things on a positive note. Regardless of the level of “progress” you’ve made in a session, never get visibly frustrated with your cat. Always praise them; tell them what a good and clever boy/girl they are; tell them you’re proud of them for trying; you’re grateful for their participation; reward them with some extra treats/play/pets… - or whatever you like. Just make sure they feel good about the session you just had since that will motivate them to participate again the next time.

  • Whenever your cat has accomplished a new trick/behavior, or even just a small part of it, let them enjoy the feeling of being good at what they just learned and practice fluency. Do NOT instantly move on to the next challenge, since that will only cause frustration, and ultimately make your cat refuse to participate. Introduce the new challenge gradually and intermittently, while periodically reverting to easier tasks to keep things light and fun for your cat.

  • If you’re struggling to teach your cat a certain behavior, break things down into smaller, easier sections that you gradually build upon. (Cat School is great at teaching you how to do this!) Never assume that just because something seems easy/obvious/logical to you that this is the same for your cat. Yes, cats can be stubborn and just choose to ignore you. But quite often, they also genuinely just don’t understand what you want from them. In those cases, it’s on you to find a way to make things easier and clearer for them.

  • All of the above is a lot easier said than done! Remember that this is a learning process for both you and your cat that always starts with YOU. The more you learn about how to train/teach your cat and the better you get at it, the better your cat student will become!


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HOW TO TEACH RECALL



How to train your cat to respond to recall (indoors):


Have you ever noticed your cat instantly materializing right next to you when you’re opening a bag of treats or a can of food? If yes, then you can definitely train your cat to respond to your recall! The principles are the same in both cases:

  1. cat hears a distinctive sound (e.g. bag of treats sound; recall)

  2. cat knows from experience that this sound means getting a certain reward (e.g. treats)

  3. cat comes running, expecting reward

  4. cat gets reward, which reinforces the above


  • First, you will have to choose your recall. This can be anything from your cat’s name, a distinctive sound that you make, the sound of a whistle, a distinctive phrase… or a combination of any of these. The keyword here is distinctive! The more distinctive the sound is, the better it will be at catching your cat’s attention. That’s why simply using their name (even if the cat knows their name and generally listens to it) might not be the best choice for a reliable recall (especially not for outdoors) since you are likely saying that name many times throughout the day, and it’s certainly not always paired with a reward.

  • Next, you will have to teach your cat that this sound means getting a reward (e.g. treats). Start by standing right next to them, with some prepared little treats. Then make that sound, and instantly feed your cat a treat. Repeat at least 5 times: sound -> treat.

  • Slowly start adding a little distance between you and your cat and see if your cat will get close to you after you made the sound. If your cat doesn’t come, you can try just putting the treat on the ground (but make sure your cat sees you doing that). If your cat practically sticks to you because they know you got treats, just toss a treat away for your cat to run after following every repetition.

  • Keep practicing the above steps until you see your cat responding well every time. Depending on your cat, that can happen within mere minutes, or you might have to just repeat this exercise at least once daily until you see improvement.

  • Once your cat responds reliably, add difficulty. You can do that by, for example, calling your cat from another room. Or, you can try calling your cat while they are preoccupied with something else. If it ever doesn’t work, go back to an easier version. Just make sure to always reward your cat for responding to your recall and try to avoid making that distinctive recall sound at times when you are not trying to call your cat, or don’t have anything to reward them with. If you want your cat to respond reliably to your recall, you have to be reliable with the rewards. (Think: If your boss sometimes just doesn’t pay you for your work, you’ll probably soon stop working for them.)



How to train your cat to respond to recall (outdoors):


For any kind of training with your cat outdoors, expect everything to be at least 10x more difficult than indoors. That’s simply because the outdoors (even familiar environments) are usually filled with things that stimulate all your cat’s senses – or, in other words, it’s extremely distracting. And that’s why solid training indoors is extremely important for success outdoors. The more conditioned (automatic) a behavior is for your cat indoors, the easier it will be for them to do the same thing outdoors.

To train your cat to listen to the recall that you’ve taught them indoors, begin by going back to the basics outdoors, and then more or less follow the same steps that you took indoors:

  • Teach sound -> reward (consider using a higher-value reward than indoors) – repeat multiple times

  • Gradually add distance (Make sure to use a long leash. If you have access to a safe outdoor area, having your cat off-leash for this makes things even easier – but don’t take any unnecessary risks!)

  • Add difficulty by calling your cat from a greater distance (if possible) and calling your cat when they are preoccupied with something else (e.g., smelling something), or distracted (e.g., watching humans or other animals).

Think of that final point as a long-term project. Even generally well-trained and experienced cats (including Percy!) frequently struggle with that when the distractions are just too captivating. Basically, if whatever is occupying them is more important to them than the reward that they will get from you, they might just choose not to respond, or at least have a very delayed response. What I found to be important though is to keep regularly practicing the recall (both indoors and outdoors). You don’t have to do it every day, but doing it every few days, or at least once a week, really does help to condition your cat to respond to it (i.e., turn it into an automatic behavior, rather than a chosen response). At the same time, take care not to overdo it either. Especially when it comes to using recall outdoors, you don’t want it to become something so trivial that your cat will just get fed up or bored with it. Make sure that when you use your cat’s recall that you really mean it and that you keep it distinctive in every way!


Never get complacent!

Even if your recall training outdoors is going great, never rely on it 100%. No matter how well your cat is trained, unexpected things can happen that might spook your cat so badly that their natural flight instinct just takes over. Always make sure your cat is at least microchipped and wears a tag with your contact details. Better even, have them wear a tracker (anything from a Bluetooth tracker, such as an AirTag, to a proper GPS tracker). And use a well-fitted harness that makes it as difficult as possible for your cat to back out of! – While none of these things can keep your cat 100% safe, a combination of all these safety measures will at least reduce the risk of your cat getting lost to a minimum.



HAPPY TRAINING!



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Make sure to also check out the posts on recall and clicker training by my fellow Adventure Cat Collaborative bloggers !


Percy's adventure packing lists: Adventure Prep: Our packing lists


Percy's Harness Tips & Reviews


Follow Percy's adventures on Instagram: @percytheexplorercat








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