As soon as your puppies ears open you can start conditioning them to the sound of the clicker. Click every time they are allowed to feed off their dam. Click when you’re weaning them on to solids. They soon learn to associate the sound of the clicker with food, which is after all, a necessity to survival.
This article deals mainly with sensory perception in young puppies. Every day you try to introduce your puppies to different sensations in the categories of touch, smell, sound, warm/cold, vibration, sight, taste, etc. Once they are clicker conditioned (i.e. have learned that the sound of the clicker means something good is about to follow), you will find that the pups become very keen to explore new things in their environment. Start with just one or two new things, and then work up to half a dozen or so if you can. If you can keep records on how they respond, you might find some very interesting patterns developing. Try and manipulate their nails every other day (not necessarily cutting them every time, but always holding the clippers near and extending the toes and paws), and handle all body parts and mouth every day. If you click and treat whilst doing this, the puppies will soon look forward to the interaction, and often start to initiate it.
Touch – give them different surfaces to walk on – carpet, sandpaper, bubble wrap, cardboard, linoleum, cement, loose paper, different fabrics, grass, etc. Once again, click and treat them for having the courage to experiment with these strange feeling surfaces.
Smell – introduce them to different scents. Aromatherapy scents are useful for this. You will find they respond differently to some. Anise tends to be very calming and if introduced repeatedly in calm situations during their youth could be used in a stressful situation (on a cottonball) to be reassuring on a subliminal level. Carry puppies around from about four days onwards for five or ten minutes at a time. Some people believe this makes the puppies do some scent imprinting on the human smell and makes them more people social.
Sound – introduce them to different sounds they will experience in everyday life – radio, alarm, telephone, television, vacuum at a distance and then closer, toilet flushing, different voices…. Remember to always click and treat if the puppy is confident enough to voluntarily approach the sound to investigate it.
Warm/Cold – introduce them to differences in temperature. Try putting the pups in a cold glass pie plate and time how long it takes them to get out of it. Give them ice cubes and warm baked potato to play with.
Vibration – let them sit on the toilet lid while you flush, hold them to your throat while you sing, wrap carefully in a towel and sit them on a running vacuum (don’t be surprised if they drop off to sleep). Several short and longer car rides a week, starting with their first trip to the vet. Keep it positive by clicking and treating for confident behaviour.
Sight – make sure their environment is well lit once their eyes open. Make a puppy mobile a few inches off the ground. Cut out bright colored shapes and tape to walls around their play area. Tie plastic bags to the fencing so that it flutters in the wind (like bunting will do at shows). Make sure that the puppies can but not reach these items – you don’t want them swallowing plastic or other inappropriate things.
Taste – let them try biting/chewing raw fruits and veggies. You could let them chew on large hunks of raw meat too, thought they won’t be able to swallow any yet. Obviously mom needs to be elsewhere.
This should be enough to get you started and thinking. Be inventive – enjoy your puppies and their early development.