You just brought your new cat home from the SPCA. You’ve set up a room just for them to settle in and get their bearings, with their food, water, litter box, and some toys. Hooray! But, when you let Kitty out of their carrier, they won’t come out – or they zip right out of the carrier straight under the couch and refuse to come out. What to do?
First, don’t panic. This is very typical for cats! Cats derive their sense of security from familiarity with their environment, so it can take them some time to settle into a new home.
Second, try reading our article “Welcome Home.” There are several ways to help your new kitty feel safe and welcome in your home.
Thirdly, consider teaching your cat a simple trick to help them realize they are in a safe place where you will bring them good things. If you’ve always been told cats can’t be trained, think again! Cats are very trainable, and can derive just as much benefit as dogs from learning a trick or two.
Today’s article is about clicker training your cat to touch your finger or hand with their nose. This behavior is called “targeting.” Training your cat to target your finger is something you can do even if they are hiding underneath the couch. It’s a great way to interact with your new cat before they are ready to come out of hiding. (Wondering what we mean by “clicker training?” Check our our article, “What exactly is the clicker, anyway?”)
Here’s what you need:
- A treat that your cat will eat reliably. Do they like wet food? Crunchy treats, soft treats? Shredded chicken? Will they lick a little meat baby food off a spoon? Keep in mind that cats can’t see what’s right in front of their faces very well. To protect your fingers from sharp little kitty teeth, offer wet foods on a spoon and offer crunchy foods by dropping them on the floor or on a small saucer where your cat can reach.
- A clicker OR a verbal marker. Some clickers are loud – particularly the box style clickers. To keep from frightening your cat, practice muffling the clicker sound with your hand or by tucking your hand with the clicker under a towel. Experiment with this before you try to train your cat. You’re just looking to muffle the sound so that it’s audible, but less loud. You don’t have to use a mechanical clicker, either – you can use a verbal marker. We recommend a short, affirmative word like “good,” “right,” or “yes.” If using a verbal marker, you’ll say your affirmative word (always use the same one!) in place of the click.
- A cat who is willing to tolerate human touch. If your cat has a history of being handled at all (i.e., is not feral), then you’ve probably got this covered. However, some cats react fearfully to humans reaching toward them. The method in this article does involve placing your hand into your cat’s space, so if you are concerned that your cat may react to the presence of your hand by lashing out, your cat is not ready to learn to target your finger. Please exercise good judgement when interacting with a frightened cat – and when in doubt, don’t put your hands or face at risk.
Ok, you’ve got your container of goodies and a clicker (or chosen verbal marker)! Position yourself where you can see your kitty’s face (if you can) or at least see some part of them. Get comfortable; you may be here for five or ten minutes.
Step 1: Load the clicker. Your cat doesn’t know what the clicker means yet, so the first step is to teach them that it means “a treat is coming!” Click the clicker (or speak your verbal marker), then immediately give a treat. If you’re using wet treats, let your cat take one lick, then gently pull the spoon away. If you’re using treats that come in chunks of some type, offer one chunk. (You can even break larger treats such as Temptations into smaller chunks. You want your kitty to be taking one “bite” per click if possible. Cats take very small bites, so you might find yourself offering itty bitty pieces.) Place the treats as close to your cat’s face as you can without startling them or causing them to flee.
Repeat this step several times, until you see your cat perking up at the sound of the click. Once you see your cat responding to the sound, you know they have learned to expect a treat. All cats are different – it may take some cats three repetitions to learn Step 1, and other cats may need fifteen or more. It’s ok if you think your cat needs a break after Step 1. You can always come back later for the next steps! And remember, the worst thing that can happen here is that you just gave your cat some treats and all they learned is that you bring them treats sometimes. That’s still helpful!
Step 2: Stretch out one finger like you are pointing at something, folding up your other fingers like this:
OR Fold up all your fingers to make a “fist of friendship:” Way of Cats explains.
The idea here is to avoid making your hand look like a paw with all the claws out – that’s kind of scary. A single finger or a fist of friendship demonstrates to your cat that you’re not planning to grab them. (This trick helps when greeting any cat, by the way!)
Step 3: Place your finger or fist of friendship near your cat. At this point, you’ll need to make a bit of a judgement call – how close should you put your hand? If you’re already able to touch your cat, you can put it 3-6 inches away from them. If they flatten their ears, scrunch away from you, or flee, you’ve put your hand too close. You’re trying to reach out to them invitingly, without pushing them out of their space. For some cats, this might mean your hand is 2 feet away – or however close you can reach, if they are really far under the bed.
Step 4: Watch your cat closely. You’re looking for them to move their face toward your finger or hand. Some cats will move forward to sniff you right away – click! treat! Others will just sniff from a distance. You can click for the sniff to start with. Your cat may also offer to shift their weight forward without moving their paws, or just look at your hand. The key thing in Step 4 is to notice your cat’s first indication of moving their nose toward your finger or fist. It’s ok if they don’t make it all the way there the first time. Remember, they don’t know what you want yet! Whatever that first little indication is, reinforce it with click! treat!
Step 5: Repeat, repeat, repeat. Your kitty needs lots of chances to learn what gets them a tasty morsel. The more reinforcement they get, the more they learn that it’s safe and rewarding to interact with your hand. Once your kitty touches the pad of your finger or some part of your fist successfully several times in a row, start clicking only for an actual touch. This is called “raising the criteria.” This way, you transition quickly to practicing the behavior you want: a nose touch to your finger pad or fist.
Things to remember:
- Don’t move your hand toward the cat once you’ve offered it to them! Just reach out and rest it on the floor. Targeting is a powerful behavior because it relies upon the animal’s choice to place a sensitive part of their body on the target (in this case, the target is your hand). You may need to be patient and give your cat what feels like a lot of time to choose to move toward you. A little patience now will go a long, long way toward earning your cat’s trust for the rest of their life. You’re not just teaching them a trick, you’re also teaching them that you will respect their personal space.
- Don’t work for too long. Five or ten minutes is plenty, and you can do a lot of training in less time than that! It’s not even just about attention span – a training session that is short and sweet sets up the learner to want more interaction (or at least more goodies). Next time you offer your cat training time, they’ll have a pleasant association. Each time, you’ll be building up that good association.
If this article is helpful to you and your cat, we would love to hear about it! You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with us on Facebook.