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The Clicker Litter
Return to Training Camp

By Karen Pryor

(Originally Published in the AKC Gazette and available online at  www.akc.org/pubs/gazette/Training/0999training.cfm, but because of repeated unavailability of the link, copied here in its entirity.)

Early clicker training will improve your puppies' chances of getting along in the world.

How soon can you begin training puppies? As soon as their eyes open, according to some breeders who are using the clicker on whole litters, even before the pups are weaned. Why would you want to do that? Well, the clicker means good things are coming. The puppy that makes that connection can then learn that its own actions sometimes cause those clicks that lead to treats. And the puppy that makes that discovery has a big head start on a happy future.

When to Start

Here is how it works. As soon as supplemental feeding begins, click as the pan of food is set down among the puppies. Some people click just once, and some click as each puppy nose actually reaches the food. Police officer Steve White, who breeds German Shepherd Dogs, begins clicking even earlier, every time the dam goes into the litter box to nurse her babies (surely a very important event for the pups). You can use a mechanical clicker, a jar lid, even a pocket stapler. You need a sound that is distinct, that is the same each time, and that is different from the normal sounds in the environment. (That is why your voice is not as effective; words just do not stand out in the same way.)

After some exposure to the clicker, start taking each puppy away from the litter for a short session of its own. Click, and treat. A dab of pureed baby-food meat on the tip of the finger makes a great treat, even for the tiniest breed. Then pick something the puppy happens to do, such a lifting a front paw, and click as the paw goes up. It may take 10 or more clicks before the puppy begins lifting the paw on purpose, but then you will be amazed at how enthusiastic the puppy becomes. "Hey, look! I can make that huge person give me food. Just by doing this!"

Choose any simple behavior at first; it does not need to be something useful. A sit, a spin, a wave, a play bow, a back-up or a lie-down are all possibilities. You can teach all the puppies the same behavior or, if you have them identified individually, teach each one something different. Do not try to coax or lure your students into a particular behavior. You want each puppy to discover that its own actions make you click. This teaches a major life lesson: "I like to find out what people want me to do." That discovery will not happen if the puppy just learns to wait to be shown what to do.

How much time does it take? Two or three clicker lessons, of no more than two to five minutes each, are enough to develop some cute little behavior. No need for a lot of drilling. Once a puppy learns what to do for a click, it will not forget. More importantly, these brief lessons can convert a puppy of 5 weeks or so from an oblivious blob into an eager, observant learner.

The Next Level

Now you can capitalize on the puppies' receptiveness to the clicker in many ways. For example, when people come up to the litter box, do the puppies run over and leap on the walls, begging for attention? Probably. So make a new rule, one that will apply to puppies, to family, and to visitors too: Only puppies that are sitting get petted or lifted out of the pen. It does not take long to get the whole litter sitting, and you can click them all at once. Now, when supper comes, the puppies will have to sit and be clicked before the dish goes down. Instead of repeatedly and unintentionally reinforcing jumping up, a behavior most pet owners hate, you are building a bunch of pups with better manners than that.

Come when called is another skill the whole litter can learn with clicks and treats, and a fun one for children to teach. Two or three children can take turns calling a puppy back and forth between them, clicking and treating when the puppies go to the child who called. Your buyers will get a puppy that has a head start on this important behavior. How far can you go? Training with absolutely no corrections, just informative clicks and enjoyable treats, you can go a long way, even with a baby. When my last Border Terrier puppy arrived on the airplane, a long-distance purchase bought sight unseen, she was just 9 weeks old. I brought her home, set her down and gave her a little toy. She picked it up, carried it to me and dropped it at my feet. I thought this was surely an accident. I tossed it. She went and got it, brought it back and dropped it again. Using clicks and treats, the breeder, as a treat for me, had taught this tiny puppy a nice retrieve!

Breeders with clicker-trained litters usually give their buyers a demonstration of what the puppy has learned, a simple list of instructions or suggestions for using the clicker (several lists are available free online; search for clicker-training sites) and, of course, a clicker or two. People love taking home a puppy that already knows a trick. What a smart dog! And your early work starts them off with an attentive and cooperative pup that is ready to learn more and has a far better chance of fitting into its new world than a puppy starting from zero.

Melinda Johnson, a longtime breeder of Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, began clicker-training her litters several years ago. Like many breeders, Johnson will always take a dog back if it does not work out in its new home. Since she started clicker-training her litters, her return rate has dropped to zero and her file of letters from happy owners has grown enormously. These puppies still have a lot to learn, of course. But they start their new lives learning how to learn, and ready and eager to learn more. Click!

Karen Pryor, a behavioral biologist, is the author of Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training.

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