How to Train Your Dragon

(aka Clicker Training Your Cat To Let You Trim His/Her Nails)

Dear Heather,

I’m glad to hear that you would like to find a way to deal with the ever-growing claws for this cat that has become a part of your life. I’m sorry, but not surprised, to hear that the cat isn’t easy to handle. I had a similar experience with my domesticated but still very crazy Bengal cat, The Buddy, of whom you have no-doubt seen dozens of photos. If you haven’t, you can find them on the Internet.

The Buddy

The Buddy is the least domesticated cat I have ever known. He has exotic behavior to go with his exotic looks. Though I haven’t been able to get him to stop breaking into all of the cabinets in the house, he and I have developed an understanding about nail trimming. Because he is really food motivated, I was able to do it using clicker training.

I didn’t get a chance to ask you whether your cat is a girl or a boy but in the notes below I will assume he is a boy like The Buddy.

First Fundamentals: Motivation and Feeding Hygiene

Before you start clicker training, you will need a good clicker. I found that the ones on Amazon by Karen Pryor Clicker Training (affiliate link) had a clear sharp sound.

Clicker training begins with associating utter positivity with the sound of the click. This means you need to identify and select something that is a strong positive experience for your cat. The Buddy likes shrimp and ham so I used shrimp for our training, cut into pea sized chunks. The reward doesn’t have to be huge.

It may be the case that your cat seems like he doesn’t like treats. If the cat always has food available to him at any time of day, I would encourage you to consider working on feeding hygiene before trying to train. Revise your cat’s feeding schedule to a couple times a day. Cats that never feel hunger are, in my opinion, less trainable and more prone to health issues associated with weight. Also, depending on how much in the way of treats you are giving your cat, you may need to dial back the amount of food he gets for breakfast or dinner.

If you can’t find a way to motivate with food, you can certainly try to associate your clicks with praise and cuddles or time with his favorite toy (assuming he can’t use it without you).

Hooking Up The Clicker

Having made a choice for what motivator to use with your cat, we can talk about the next step: Associating the clicker with positivity. Here are two guidelines that have served me well.

1 - The Clicker is ONLY for Positive Reinforcement

You can’t use the clicker to get your cat to stop doing something but you can use the clicker to get your cat to start doing something. Definitely don’t try to use any stern corrective action against your cat while you’re in training mode. The goal here is to use the clicker as the overwhelming YES!

2 - Keep Your Sessions Short

Train only for a few minutes at a time and then let it rest. This is habit formation we are dealing with, creating new neural grooves in the cat’s brain-body, and you want to do it consistently and over an extended period of time. This will also serve to keep the motivator as a novel experience rather than one that is common and boring.

Now: Start Slow

With those guidelines out of the way, I present to you the first lesson.

For a week: Once or twice a day, have a 5 minute long training session that consists only of clicking and then giving the cat an awesome treat and some praise: click, treat, praise, rest, repeat.

What we are doing here is priming the cat to understand that the click means a treat.

Glamour Shot

Next: Shaping Toward Behaviors

Now that your clicker is hooked up, you can separate the click from the treat. The Click now serves the job of marking the EXACT point in time when your cat was doing the behavior that you are rewarding and acts as a promise that your cat will be rewarded. This time-independence is the main benefit of training with a clicker vs. just giving a treat which is imprecise on why exactly the cat is being rewarded.

For any particular behavior you want to have your cat do (or tolerate, in the case of nail trimming), you will have to experiment and design a stair-stepped path toward the behavior demanding more crude behavior during the initial phase and more complex behavior in the latter stages.

Getting Your Cat To Accept Nail Trimming

Here is a pattern that I used for nail trimming. Each of these steps was something I would repeat, without moving to the next step for a few days.

The goal with clicker training is to get him to tolerate my handling him without fussing. For each step, I would do the action and click/treat/repeat.

  1. Pull the cat into my office chair into my lap with his belly and legs upward.
  2. (Step 1) + briefly handling a paw and exposing his claws
  3. (Steps 1-2) + grabbing the nail trimmers
  4. (Steps 1-3) + put the nail trimmers up to one of his claws without cutting
  5. (Steps 1-3) + cut a single nail
  6. (Steps 1-3) + cut two nails.

Remember to keep the sessions short. 5-10 minutes at most.

I had to learn to be patient and adaptable: If The Buddy got too feisty (aka he was biting me), I would stop and try again some other time.

Also, I ended up having to keep the shrimp in the refrigerator because he was utterly unfocused if I had his cup of shrimp someplace he could see and smell it.

Getting Your Cat to Come When Called

This was a pattern I used to get my cat to come when called. Handy when I want to make sure he’s not trapped someplace before I close a door.

  1. Choose a Cue!: I chose: knocking sharply twice on wood (knock! knock!)
  2. Cue! and click/treat if he looks your way
  3. … if he starts in your direction
  4. … if he walks part of the way to you
  5. … if he walks all the way to you
  6. … if he runs in your direction
  7. … if he runs all the way to you

Again, each stage here is something I stick with for a few days. The progression adds up to the desired behavior.

Your Patience and Imagination Are Your Limit

The true believers of clicker training say that you can shape just about any behavior. I stopped with behaviors that make having him in my life managable rather than going full on into complex tricks. That was the extent of my interest.

If you have read to this point, congratulations. This article is over 1000 words long! I hope you will consider just trying to work with clipping your cat’s nails. It may seem impossible now, but think of how much more of an achievement it is to slay (or train) dragons than it is to take another way out with all the drawbacks it may come with.