Updated: Feb 3
Clicker training a litter is so much fun – for the puppies and the trainers. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it provides lifelong benefits to the pups.
When I first made the decision to attempt to clicker train a litter the task seemed a little daunting. I am in the midst of clicker training my second Maremma litter. The first pups I trained this way are now ten months old; two of them are here with me, and I have stayed in touch with the owners of the pups that went out into the world.
Training is my passion, so I have seen to it that I have had lots of opportunities to train Maremma puppies. Given this, when I compare the pups of the past with the pups I have done clicker training with, I have a lot to base my opinions on. Because I believe it is so valuable to the dogs I’d like to take a minute to describe the steps necessary in working with a litter, rather than single pups, in the hope that you’ll try it too, so here goes!
When clicker training a litter, it is neither necessary nor desirable to separate the pups from each other. Puppies learn a lot from each other, and separating puppies would be a lesson in itself since young pups have never been away from each other. Working with individual pups, or smaller groups of pups can come later as specific behaviors to be taught are the goal.
A logical and common question about training a litter is how do the pups know which click is for them? A pup knows the click is for him because the trainer is looking him in the eye, and he is quickly being rewarded with something tasty. Very early in the game, the pups in the periphery try to figure out how that guy got chicken! It is possible for multiple trainers to work with a group of puppies all at the same time and have wonderful learning happening. One of the biggest lessons going on here for the pups is that training is fun, so when in doubt, click and pay, or just pay.
If I click a puppy for manding and three other pups are giving me eye contact, or manding, all will get paid for that single click if that timing works best. If possible, I will have noticed that several puppies are willing to play the game with me and be ready to click and pay across the lot of them in rapid-fire succession!
Training is happening all the time. Puppies learn from their environment and from the humans in their lives who do “training sessions” and then are done or think they are done. For puppies, this is a very narrow distinction! So what to do you with these now so mindful puppies when they offer beautiful, learned behaviors when your hands are full, and you’re tired, and you don’t have a clicker and life is happening, etc? You use what you have and do your best – it will be enough.
You do always have your voice, and possibly your hands too, if you aren’t loaded up with puppy food and what have you. I use two verbal markers; both said oddly enough that they don’t sound like a typical conversation. If I were a better trainer, I’d get down to one marker word, but for now, I use two. My marker words are “Yeeeeesss!” and “Nice!” I also have a touch marker. Sometimes I will reach across a group of puppies and touch one on the forehead and use my marker word. The marker word or touch does not take the place of the treat, but it does let the pup know that I heard him and appreciate it.
When I walk into the field my puppies live in, many of them will mill around in excitement, but very quickly, one or two or more will mand. Some will even leave the group and turn toward me and mand. I swear they give me that “do you see how wonderful I am” look. I make sure I fuss over the pups who are purposeful so that they know I noticed. Then I go on to whatever chore took me there.
When first teaching a behavior, it is important to reinforce that behavior every time it is offered so that the pup understands what you want. Once learned, though, it is fine to reinforce the behavior intermittently; think of it as gambling. The pup knows that sometimes you pay and that this might be one of those times, and if not, the next one might!