The Scratching Log

Blog for Ratha series home-page website. Posted by author Clare Bell.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Two-way Clicker Communication

Clicker Communication from primate (human) to cat:

This morning, I and my gray female kitty, Athena did a clicker session together. Most people, including its originator, Karen Pryor, call this activity clicker-training. I prefer clicker communication or interaction, since it is not just about teaching a cat tricks. It is, as Pryor notes in her book, Clicker-Training for Cats, a wonderful way to communicate with another species. Athena knows that if I ask her to do something, by means of either voice or hand signal, and she does it, she gets a click, which signals a food reward. The click comes from a hand-held device that I press with my thumb.

(See Pryor's website)

Athena often asks me to do a session by patting my face gently, then running into the room we use. She then "offers behavior" to get me to click and treat. She goes to home base, which is right on top of her scratch-post cat tower. It is about chair-seat height. I click and treat her for that.

She knows how to target, i.e. follow the end of a capped ballpoint stick pen. Often we do "around the world" which is hopping from home to a chair then to a desk, then back home. If I stand back and give her free run, she will often go to her cat carrier, open the (unlatched) door and enter. That earns her a treat.

If I hold a hand palm-down and flat over her head or ask her to sit, she will (after a little feline deliberation). She also will target up, lifting her forepaws in a "sit pretty", or sometimes standing on her hind legs and pawing the target stick, looking like a circus lion or tiger.

"Cat athletics" is jumping over or crawling under a board propped in my narrow hallway. I make sure that it doesn't fall and alarm her.

When she wants to end a session, she sits and washes her face.

Some people feel that a cat is "above" learning tricks and that teaching them is demeaning. For Athena and me working with the clicker is great fun. If I am busy, she will often pester me for a session, but she is so sweet about it that I don't mind.
If we don't do a clicker session for a few days, she still remembers everything.

(I don't know what breed or mix she is. I adopted her as a tiny kitten from a shelter. She matches some of the breed standards for a Korat, or perhaps a Russian Blue. I personally think she is a Korat or Korat mix. What do you think?)

Thinking up new things to teach her is often challenging, but fun for both of us. Sometimes she gets an idea, then "offers" it to me.

In reverse: from cat to primate (lemur):

Ratha and the Named keep small lemur-like animals called "treelings" as companions and helpers. In Clan Ground, Thakur, the herding teacher for the clan, teaches his treeling Aree various tasks. He gives the animal spoken commands and nudges it gently with his nose. He clicks his teeth together to get its attention, and purrs to show that he is pleased. He rewards Aree with licks and nuzzles.

This is not clicker-training in the exact sense, but borrows from the idea. Dolphin trainers have used similar reward-based method using whistles and that was in use when I wrote Clan Ground in 1983-84. The idea of clicker-training was just starting among dog trainers back then, although I have no idea how I got hold of it. Maybe Thakur just invented the Named version.

From pp. 110-111 of Clan Ground, here Thakur is, teaching Aree in stages how to build and tend a a small flame of the Red Tongue.

He took the stick and placed it in the fire.... He moved slowly, letting Aree follow everything he did. When the stick was in place, he picked it up in his jaws, took it out and replaced it carefully. Once he was sure the treeling understood, he put the stick back in the fire again, but instead of grasping it with his teeth, he used his pawpad.

The wood only rolled under his clumsy swipes. With an impatient chirp, the treeling reached underneath Thakur's foreleg, seized the stick and pulled it out. With a gesture almost like a flourish, Aree presented him with the stick as if to say, "This isn't so hard if you have paws like mine. See?"

Thakur licked the treeling until he was damp and rubbed against him until Aree's coat was thoroughly rumpled....

Aree learned rapidly and was soon responding correctly to Thakur's directions. He found that the sharp sound he made by clicking his teeth together would command the treeling's attention faster than would spoken words.

Soon Aree could extract a branch from the fire and walk around on three legs, holding the lighted torch.

I'll bet the pioneering clicker-trainers never imagined something like this!

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At August 13, 2007 9:47 PM , Blogger Catriona said...

Athena looks like a British Shorthair - my friend has one almost identical to her, although somewhat fatter!


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