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Training a puppy can be a fun and exciting process. With a bit of patience and perseverance, your pup will become a well-mannered pet, making your training efforts worthwhile. Puppies learn very quickly when you teach with positive reinforcement, and clicker training can enhance the process.
A clicker is a small, handheld device that makes a crisp clicking sound when you press it. They’re easily found online or at pet supply stores, and there are apps you can download on your smartphone to replicate the clicker sound as well. A retractable pen can also serve as a clicker if it makes a sound that’s loud and clear enough.
The idea behind clicker training is quite simple: as your puppy is learning a new skill, the sound of the clicker allows you to ‘mark’ or pinpoint the exact moment when they've done a behavior you like, and then you promptly deliver a treat to reward them for that behavior. As long as your timing is good, the click sound is a clear and precise way to let the puppy know exactly what behavior leads to a treat, and this speeds up training. Puppies learn to offer that behavior again and again because it consistently leads to a wonderful reward.
Clicker training is a lot of fun and a great way to deepen your relationship with your puppy. Here are ten tips to help you get started with this wonderful teaching technique.
Begin clicker training with your puppy in a quiet, distraction-free area so that it will be easy for them to focus on you and this fun, new activity.
The first step, before you begin working on a new skill, is to teach your puppy that the click sound predicts good stuff. Grab 15-20 tiny, tasty treats (you can hold them in a closed fist or have them in a bowl near you). Press the clicker once, and then deliver a treat to your pup, right after the click sound. Pause a short while, then repeat the same sequence. Your pup will quickly learn that the click sound predicts treat delivery and will become very excited when they hear this sound. Now you’re ready to use it when teaching a new skill.
Training should take place when your little puppy has a good appetite—not right after mealtime. If your puppy has a belly full of food, they may be tired and less interested in the treats you’re offering. Select soft, healthy treats that you can cut into tiny pieces. Your pup should love what you’re offering without it upsetting their tummy. Pay attention to how many treats you’re using to avoid causing weight gain.
The treats you select will depend on your individual pup. Some are quite finicky and you may need to use tiny bits of chicken or freeze-dried liver to motivate them. Other puppies are real foodies and will be happy to work for portions of their regular meals. Remember: Treats should not make up more than 10% of a pet’s caloric intake. Also, stomach upset may occur in pets who do not tolerate dietary changes well.
The true value of the clicker lies in its ability to pinpoint (or mark) the exact behavior you’re teaching, but this requires good timing. Make sure you click while your puppy is performing the desired behavior—like snapping a photo of the exact behavior you like. If you’re too early or too late, your puppy may have trouble associating the click with the behavior you’re trying to teach. If you’d like to practice your timing before working with your pup, have someone drop a ball while you practice clicking at the exact moment it hits the ground and then continue to click for each bounce that follows. It may take a bit of practice to perfect your timing, but your training will be more efficient when your timing is precise.
It’s easy to get started with training when you choose a behavior that’s very simple for your puppy to offer. For example, you can call your puppy’s name (something they’re already familiar with), click at the exact moment they look at you, and then offer a treat. From there, you can move on to other simple behaviors, like sit or down. You’ll be pleased to see how quickly puppies learn new behaviors. Just don’t overwhelm them with too much at first. Once they have a few simple skills under their belt, you can begin working on more difficult tasks that are also fun, such as “shake” or “high five.”
Puppies are naturally doing all sorts of behaviors all day long. If you observe carefully, you’ll notice certain behaviors that you like and want to see more of. For example, if your puppy walks up to you and sits (rather than jumping up), click and treat that behavior. If they happen to lie down quietly on a nearby dog bed, you can click and toss them a treat. With consistent repetition, your pup will soon be offering these behaviors more frequently because they’ve learned it leads to clicks and treats.
Puppies by nature have short attention spans, so keep clicker training practice brief at first—maybe 3-5 minutes. Puppies can learn a lot in short bursts because they’re interested and engaged and have a good appetite for the goodies you’re offering. Schedule several short training sessions throughout the day.
If you’re especially proud of your puppy’s performance, you can offer some extra treats, but don’t click repeatedly as this tends to water down its meaning.
Some behaviors will be more challenging for your pup and they may not be able to perform it in its entirety at first. Instead, you can break the behavior down into smaller steps, clicking and treating for each small step that moves your puppy in the direction of the goal behavior. For example, if you’re using a treat to lure a puppy into a down position, but they keep popping back up before their body reaches the floor, click and treat for just a small head dip at first. Then look for more of a hunched body position to click and treat. Before you know it, one of the pup’s front paws will slip forward a bit, and you can click and treat that. Finally, your pup will position their whole body on the floor. By breaking up the desired behavior into small steps, you can keep the puppy happily engaged in the training game and avoid frustration and failure.
Depending on the skill you’re teaching, it can take a bit of time before the puppy fully understands what behavior causes you to click and treat. If you added a cue (or command) right away, that may be associating the cue with an incomplete or sloppy behavior. It’s better to wait until the puppy is easily and repeatedly offering the behavior you desire. When they are doing what you want, you can begin introducing the cue just before the puppy was going to do the behavior anyway. This way, the cue becomes closely paired with the behavior and, with continued practice, the pup will learn to perform the behavior each time they hear the cue.
Puppies are unique and will learn different skills at their own pace. Focus on having fun and making progress in each session, rather than setting unrealistic expectations that may leave you frustrated and your puppy confused. Training can and should be fun and rewarding. If you find that you need a bit of help, don’t hesitate to reach out to an experienced, professional trainer for guidance. You can reference the Behavioral Help for Your Pet webpage from our partners at the ASPCA® to determine what type of trainer may be best for you and your pet.
An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.
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