When we planned to breed our bitch, I was very enthusiastic about starting to train the puppies from a very early age. Having been a clicker trainer for (at that stage) past fifteen years, I firmly believe in the mantra “any animal can be taught anything it is mentally and physically capable of doing”. Clicker training is a very elegant method of teaching animals all sorts of behaviours with the use of an event marker, usually the sound of a plastic clicker. This sound is paired with something the animal likes, so that the animal (be it a bear or a mouse, a dog or a chicken) learns that when it hears the sound, something good will follow. This puts the animal in control of the learning situation – it offers and appropriate behaviour, which is marked with the click, and knows that a treat will follow. Pretty soon the animal will become very inventive, trying to work out what it is that will earn it a treat.
The reason I prefer a clicker to e.g. a sound (like the words “good dog”) is because the sound of the clicker is unique – the puppies will never hear that particular sound during the course of the day. The sound of the event marker needs to be distinct, it needs to be exactly the same every time, and quite different from normal environmental sounds.
As soon as my puppies ears opened, I started clicking whenever they woke and started feeding from their dam. So the puppies became conditioned that the sound of the click meant something they wanted was going to follow – and this before they could even walk!! So the puppies learnt that their own actions sometimes caused the clicks that lead to treats. And puppies that make this discovery have a big head start on a happy future.
As the puppies (there were seven of them) were being weaned, I started clicking as the food was placed amongst them. They had already began to startle when they heard the click sound – an indication that they understood that the click meant something good was about to arrive. A flick of the ear towards the sound, a turn of the head, and slamming on of brakes if they were going in another direction etc. are all indications that the animal has made the connection between click and treat.
Now it was time to do a little bit of one-on-one interaction. I took one puppy at a time and clicked it for sitting, looking in my eyes, staying four-feet-on-the-floor (as opposed to jumping up for attention). I used bits of minced meat, liver treats, raw chicken etc. as treats for them. I knew which puppy I would be keeping, and taught her to lift her paw (beginning of a wave). This was easy – every time she shifted her weight onto one side, I would click and treat. Pretty soon she was shifting her weight more and more obviously, until her foot came off the ground. It took about 10 clicks, and my puppy could wave!! Amazing muscular control for a 6 week old pup. And you should have seen her face – “WOW: I just made this huge human give me food just by lifting my little paw!!”
Now that each of the puppies could sit, I worked them all together. I’d take them for a walk together at the back of the property (we live on a 2 acre stand so there’s plenty of space). When I stopped walking, seven little bottoms would hit the ground. The ones that sat the fastest got a click and treat. In a very short space of time it became a race to see who could catch me out – before I actually halted, little puppies would be sitting solidly in my path demanding a click and treat!! What a pleasure. And of course my little bitch puppy would add in a wave in for good measure …..
It is important that the animal is not coaxed or lured into the required position. Let them work it out for themselves – it’s their action that earns a click and treat: not following a food treat until their position is changed. This teaches them a major life lesson – they learn to want to find out what people want them to do. In other words, interaction, the desire to please, to experiment, to try and try and try again to give the human what they are looking for becomes self-rewarding to the puppy. What a super relationship to have with your dog. If you assist all the time, the dog will not learn that it is its own actions that elicit the click and treat.
The other beauty of clicker training is that it’s so fast. Just a couple of clicker lessons, no more than five or so minutes each, and your pup will have learnt another cute behaviour. No need to keep going over the same thing again and again – once the dog has worked out for itself what behaviour earns a reward, it will retain that knowledge for the rest of its life. Sure, if you don’t reinforce it for some time, you might need to go back and polish it up a bit, but the dog will never forget. And those initial fun clicking session at five or six weeks of age convert a puppy from a floppy blob into an eager, observant learner.
Carrying it Further
Of course you can take this whole thing much further. Most puppies will rush to greet visitors, jumping up and yapping when they appear. If your puppies understand clicker training, you can reward the puppies that sit quietly rather than tearing clothes with sharp little puppy teeth. The puppies can be clicked and then picked up and petted.
I also enforced a strong recall (come when called) in these little puppies. I would let them all play together, and then call them (not individual names at this time, just a sound that I used to get their attention). The first ones to arrive (sitting!) at my feet earned a click and treat.
So the puppies went to their new homes with some basic manners already instilled in them. A couple of the new owners phoned to check whether their puppy was not sick – whoever heard of a pup that walked on a loose lead and sat when you stopped walking? One that didn’t jump up, but rather waved at you to get your attention?
Of course the fun that I had with the puppies was only the very beginning of the learning they needed for future life. But at least they started their lives learning how to learn, and were all very ready and eager to learn more.