Plan ahead – be prepared!
For young puppies, a training session of three minutes is a long time. Do your training sessions when the puppies are awake and active and don’t overstay your welcome. The goal is to go in with the puppies ready with your clicker and a pouch full of treats, click and pay in rapid-fire succession, and then quit and get out with the puppies wanting more.
To begin, teach your puppies to eat treats from your hands without the clicker being part of it. I use both baked chicken and string cheese because it is popular and easy for me, but anything healthful that the puppies like is fine. The treat size is tiny! A treat that is pea-sized for eight-week-old puppies is too big. With string cheese, I sometimes just use a smear of it on my finger or hold a chunk in my hand and let each pup chew off a tiny bit, from pup to pup to pup. With the chicken, I shred tiny slivers of it between my fingers, from pup to pup to pup.
Holding the attention of the puppies is critical to your success, so even the time it takes to reach into your pouch for a treat between behaviors is too slow. You only have about three minutes, so use that time wisely. My goal is usually a click/treat every two seconds to someone.
Clickable behaviors are the pups looking at you or putting their tush on the ground. Do not stare at the puppies as you train! In canine language, solid eye contact can be perceived as a challenge, so this focus may frighten your puppy. Eyes to eyes contact with praise and a treat builds relationship with your pups, but focusing on them while you watch for a behavior doesn’t.
****Important*** The clicker is what is called a “marker.” It is effective in training because it is a sound that is not otherwise in the pup’s environment, such as your voice is, it is precise, and it sounds the same in any person’s hands. Here on the ranch, I have a variety of puppy trainer volunteers, and visitors to the ranch may be tucked into that fold; it is all the same for the pups because of the consistent sound of the clicker. Having said all that, it is important to note that some dogs are frightened by the sound of the clicker, so the first step in this training is to determine if any of your pups are worried about the sound of the clicker.
The clicker is not used like the remote control of your TV! The click should not happen near the pup. I like the home base for my clicking hand to be near my hip; that hand stays still – my treat hand moves lots. Before you go near your pups, out of hearing range of their hearing, play around with the clicker so that it doesn’t feel so odd to you. Try it out and decide which hand will be your clicker hand and which will be your treat hand, at least for this session.
Another important training protocol point – when you are training, give your pups your FULL attention. It’s only three minutes, after all. Turn your cell phone on silent and ignore outside distractions.
To begin, armed with treats and the clicker in your hand, go in with your awake pups. From 20 feet away or so, click and watch your pups closely! Any pup that glances at you should be paid so quickly, but not scary quickly; go to any pup who glanced at you and treat the pup or pups – there may be many. Did any one of the pups flinch when they heard the click or lower themselves to the ground? If so, you’ll need to pick a different marker or use your clicker differently. Clicking behind your back lessens the sound, as does clicking while your hand is in your pocket. I have never met a dog that was afraid of the sound of a clicker, but it is something to check out carefully right from the start.
Now that you have established that the sound of the clicker isn’t scary and a pup or two was fed something delicious, you likely have the slight attention of a few pups. Causally but vigilantly “hang out” with them. Use your peripheral vision to be aware of behaviors around you.
This is what will happen: The group of pups will begin to move around. A glance your way gets clicked and paid, so you’ll end up reaching across pups to pay ones farther away. As you do, that one (or many) of them are likely to sit because you are tall and they are short, and because that is a contemplative position for a pup. Watch for this!!!
To teach manding specifically, your goal is to click the instant before the tush hits the ground, not after; however, perfection is elusive and not particularly important in this circumstance, so don’t stress about it. When in doubt, click and pay. If You EVER click, pay, even if you didn’t mean to click because your click is your word.
The time will fly by. Before you get sleepy puppies, give the whole group kisses and snuggles and leave. Always make ending the training session as happy an event as beginning one.
Part of what is happening here that is so valuable to the pups is what is happening while you are making other plans, so to speak. The pups learn a positive association between training, working with people, thinking, and making decisions that get humans to do things. These are life skills; these first sessions are the building blocks for all the training that follows.