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Clicker Training a Litter – What The Pups Learn

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Well, blogs are supposed to be short, and this is a subject I could talk about for days, so it will be a challenge for me to rein myself in here. The more I learn about behavioral science and how clicker training figures into that, the more amazed I am at how valuable this training can be for a pup and how easy it is to do as a trainer/breeder/owner, etc. For now, here, I’ll just touch on the high points. I’ll go over this in-depth in my book and possibly in blogs to follow.

Puppies learn that training is absolutely the best!!! They love it. They look forward to it. It’s the game they always win. Think about how many times you have read or heard that Maremmas are independent, presented as if that is a fault of the breed or a challenge. I assure you it is not. Maremmas are highly trainable if you use the right language. Please take a really good look at the short video of the pups on the ramp; just look at their eyes and expressions. These babies are eager to learn. They are confident, even when presented with something they have never seen. And all eyes are on me, in anticipation of what will happen next. That is so powerful. With most of my adult dogs, I can whisper and have their focus and attention; it all starts right here.

They learn to take treats from my hand gently. This is a learned skill and one they will never forget. My dogs take their Heartguard Plus from my hands softly and respectfully. For the most part, my pups/dogs treat all of my body gently because of what they have learned in these early oh-so-simple training sessions.

This training helps to prevent resource guarding. Resource guarding is fear-based. It may manifest itself in aggression, but it is really about the pup worrying that something he cares about will be taken away; food is a primary resource to protect. Please watch that video from this perspective now. I have the tastiest stuff in my hand! All the pups are crowded together, and yet never, not once, does any pup look towards a sibling in a competitive manner. They know, they absolutely know, that this is about them and me and that their participation will be rewarded regardless of what else is going on around them. As the pups mature, I continue to build on this foundation with further training, but again, it starts here.

This training gives me a tool that I can use as an emotional re-set for the pup in any situation. Puppies learn so fast and so well. I build such a strong reinforcement history with the sound of that clicker that just the sound itself makes the pup happy. I use this tool a lot in teaching the pups to be confident in situations they otherwise might worry about. I keep thinking I should make a video to show this, but I just don’t have the heart to knowingly frighten a pup, so I’ll just have to try to paint a picture with words. Here’s a scenario as an example of what I am talking about.

I have a pup on a leash in a new area. Maybe he’s fearful of the new place, or a sound frightens him. As the pup stills and lowers to the ground slightly, I make enough of a sound that he glances up at me – click/treat. This he knows! This he can win at, so maybe he can also handle what else is going on around him now. The pup’s response to the sound of the clicker, at this point in his training, has become an automatic positive emotional response. Instead of continuing with that uncomfortable fear spike, he now has a hit of happiness, to leave the science out of it. Fear shuts down learning, so the sooner I can get the pup back to feeling safe, the sooner we can get back to what I was trying to teach in the first place.

This kind of training is used in zoos all over the world to assist non-domestic animals in allowing husbandry behaviors to be carried out without damaging the zookeeper’s relationship with them. And yep, you’ve got it. This type of training can begin with a litter of puppies who just barely know how to eat chicken.

There’s more, so much more, but I will leave this with you as a teaser of sorts. Try it! It’s a way to advocate for the safety of the lovely bunch of fluff at your feet, and you can feel proud of yourself for trying something new. Change is tough on people too!

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